Good Season, but Early Exit Lit a Fire for the Next

Williams Loved Her Team and Sees Good Things Ahead

By Shawn Ekwall

  • Jaz Shelly, the team’s leading scorer, is returning for another year.
  • Humphrey, Nebraska, native Allison Weidner averaged 7.2 points a game as a freshman.
  • Alexis Markowski was the Big Ten Freshman Player of the Year.

A 24-win season – tied for fourth best in school history. The first NCAA tournament appearance since 2018. Nebraska women’s basketball coach Amy Williams should be happy as she reflects on the past season. And she is, for the most part. But in a recent hourlong interview over the phone, there was more than a niggling undercurrent of regret.

Of course she’s proud of her team and all of the progress her players have made. She feels good about the future and she spoke of the joy she felt coaching her players the past year.

But the early exit from the tournament — a 68-55 loss to Gonzaga – was a bitter pill. The Bulldogs were senior-laden, and their experience paid dividends. NU struggled to score, and the 55-point output was unsettling for players and coaches alike. It’s something that will motivate them in offseason workouts.

“That result lit a fire in the bellies of this team,” Williams said. “When we’re playing our best, we can compete with the best in the country. We ran across a situation where we only put 55 on the board. It left a bad taste in our mouth.

“Gonzaga has a lot of seniors and I think our team learned things they (Gonzaga) learned previously.”

The good news for NU, which finished sixth in the Big Ten, is the return of a core group of key players. The starting five of Jaz Shelley, Sam Haiby, Alexis Markowski, Allison Weidner and Isabelle Bourne all return.

Haiby’s announcement to return for a fifth season was a mild surprise. She went through Senior Day festivities, but after the disappointing loss to the Bulldogs and some arm-twisting from her roommates such as Shelley, Bourne and Trinity Brady, Haiby announced in early April that she’d be back.

“We had several discussions and we knew Sam was strongly considering (returning),” Williams said. “Sam wasn’t satisfied after the loss to Gonzaga. There’s a few things she’d like to accomplish, so we’re excited for that decision and the experience she brings back.”

The Moorhead, Minnesota, native averaged 11 points per game and has averaged at least 10 points all four of her seasons at NU. She ranks 15th all-time in points (1,381) and eighth in assists (414).

“I still feel like I have more to accomplish as a player and a leader,” Haiby said. “I am coming back to Nebraska next season because we believe we can take our program another step further together. I can’t wait to go to work again with this team.”

Haiby’s leadership and experience will be key to a team that started a pair of freshmen in Markowski and Weidner late in the year. With a year under their belts, the duo from Lincoln Pius X and Humphrey St. Francis, respectively, should be more comfortable in their roles moving forward.

Williams mentioned how Markowski (12.8 point per game) and Weidner (7.2) fit in immediately and how coming from winning cultures in high school eased the transition.

“They’re winners, they have a winning mindset and experienced a lot of success in high school,” Williams said. “The work ethic they brought in was really important and they just take a lot of pride in representing the state of Nebraska.”

Shelley, a transfer from Oregon, found her niche early in the season and never relinquished her role as a scorer, ballhandler and distributor. She led the team with 13.1 points a game while shooting 40.6% from beyond the arc.

Still, Williams talked about Shelley’s desire to improve parts of her game.

“Jaz is really focusing on improving her mid-range game,” Williams said. “She led us in scoring, assists, steals and was second in rebounding. Her overall game is so versatile and it’s critically important to us. But she’s never satisfied and wants to get better and tighten up her handles even more.”

Williams talked about being selective as NU looks to fill out its roster. The transfer portal will be active through summer. Whitney Brown, a freshman from Grand Island, announced her departure from Nebraska to Fort Hays State within the past few weeks.
“We feel really good and solid about our returning core,” Williams said. “That allows us to be selective and guarding of our culture in who we take. We’re looking to find players that will compete, but also match with the pieces we have in place. Players that are selfless and play together.”

Along with adding a few pieces to the roster, Williams looks to have one assistant coaching spot to fill. Assistant Chuck Love was suspended with pay following the Penn State game Feb. 17. And while Williams was unable to comment on the situation, she was hopeful things would be resolved in the near future.

“We’re just being patient and letting the process take place,” she said. “We’re hopeful that we’ll be able to have an announcement before too long.”

The 24 wins were a season-high for Williams since coming to NU in 2017, and third-best in her career behind her final two seasons at South Dakota. She continues to mold the Huskers into an annual Big Ten contender.

While reflecting on the past season’s high points, Williams wasn’t shy to heap praise on her team and brought it all back to the team mantra of Compete and Connect.

“I’m very grateful to be part of this team and their journey,” she said. “It was a very special group and our mantra, Compete and Connect, allowed them to do what they love and do it out of sheer joy. They enjoyed each other and enjoyed playing together.

“We always said we’re going to fight. The competition was there each day they put the uniform on. They stayed together and stayed connected. Any success we had is a credit to that. I’m happy for each of their successes.”

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Ted Kirk is a Lincoln-based photographer who has been a photojournalist since 1970. The Sioux Falls, South Dakota, native covered Nebraska Athletics from 1973 through 2018. During that span he covered thousands of Husker Athletic competitions around the United States. His work is being donated to the University of Nebraska Library Photo Archive.

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