LINCOLN, Neb. — As measured by wins, the Nebraska women's basketball team had its worst season in program history in 2016-17. The Cornhuskers were emerging from the resignation of their most successful head coach, the team was divided, and there were questions whether new coach Amy Williams had the chops for the Big Ten.
Look at the Huskers now.They've won five straight and eight of their last nine after a 62-47 victory over Illinois on Thursday night to improve to 17-6 overall and 8-2 in the conference. They'll be playing for second place, and possibly first, when No. 11 and league-leading Maryland visits Sunday — which makes last year's seven-win season seem like a long time ago.
"To be honest, I don't feel vindicated," Williams said. "I believe in my staff and what we do. I didn't feel there was any need for vindication and, to be quite honest with you, we knew this was going to be a process that took some time. Am I happy that maybe we're having a little bit of success earlier than the outside world's expectations would have been? Yeah. I'm happy for our seniors, and I'm happy for our program moving forward."
Nebraska definitely needed to move forward after the tumult of two years ago. The university investigated allegations, brought by a faction of players and staff, that coach Connie Yori was abusive. A number of players defended Yori, and she repeatedly denied the allegations. She resigned anyway in April 2016.
Enter Williams, who had spent the previous four years at South Dakota of the Summit League. The Huskers went 7-22 overall and 3-13 in the Big Ten and were outscored by an average of 17.3 points in conference games. After the season two-time All-Big Ten center Jessica Shepard decided to transfer for reasons that were never made public. The NCAA granted her immediate eligibility at Notre Dame for special circumstances, and she's the second-leading scorer and top rebounder for the fifth-ranked Irish.
Shepard's departure turned out to be anything but crushing.
"We won't go into too much detail other than to say we were supportive of Jessica and her decision," Williams said. "I think we're all very happy she's having the success she's having and that she's found ways to blossom as a player in her new environment, and we've found ways to blossom as a team with our situation."
Sophomore guard Hannah Whitish, one of five players in the Big Ten shooting better than 40 percent from 3-point range, averages 13.6 points per game to lead a balanced offense. Center Kate Cain (10.5 ppg, 6.6 rebounds) and guard Taylor Kissinger (10.4 ppg) are two of the top freshmen in the conference.
The Huskers allow 63.8 points after giving up 76.3 last season, and Cain is blocking a Big Ten-leading 3.4 shots per game.
After going 0-13 away from home last year, the Huskers are 8-0 in true road games.
The turnaround of Williams' team has coincided with the surge of Tim Miles' men's team. Miles' squad has won 10 of its last 13 to get to 17-8, and it is fourth in the Big Ten at 8-4.
The men's and women's programs have finished with winning conference records in the same season just four times in 35 years.
"No pressure," Williams said when told of the history. "We better keep it going."
Taylor Kissinger pic.twitter.com/PrGlOsn9uY— Nebraska WBB (@HuskersWBB) February 2, 2018
Williams and Miles and their staffs are enjoying their combined success. They pop into each other's offices on the upper level of the Hendricks Training Complex, make light conversation and sometimes even talk X's and O's.
"So the second floor, everybody is kind of skipping up the steps right now and smiling and feeling happy," Miles said.
NCAA tournament talk has started for both teams. Last year at this time Miles was uncertain about his job security, and Williams had her hands full managing personalities while trying to build trust and improve the product on the court.
Kissinger being clutch pic.twitter.com/8N1rcfCZQH— Nebraska WBB (@HuskersWBB) February 2, 2018
"I'm really happy for Amy," Miles said. "Last year was a struggle for her just to come from such a successful program at South Dakota, and then that rebuild seems like it makes you question everything. We're really proud of them and happy to see their success, and it's just a matter of time before that women's basketball is back in that top 25 on a regular basis."
The success of Nebraska basketball — men's and women's — has provided a diversion for a fan base that spends much of February following football recruiting and counting the days to spring football practice. This year the fans are more football-minded than usual because of the hiring of new coach Scott Frost.
Williams, who played at Nebraska in 1995-98, gets it.
"There is plenty of time for Husker Nation to be excited about men's and women's basketball AND football recruiting," Williams said. "We certainly are."