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College Basketball

The Nebraska Cornhuskers Spoiled A Party In Their Own House

3:35 PM EST on February 12, 2024

Kendall Moriarty #15 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers and Alexis Markowski #40 celebrate after a basket as Caitlin Clark #22 of the Iowa Hawkeyes looks on in the second half at Pinnacle Bank Arena on February 11, 2024 in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

Last weekend, Nebraska suffered what was almost certainly the worst loss of head coach's Amy Williams's tenure in Lincoln. At home, against a Rutgers team that began conference play 0-10, the Huskers missed a bunny at the buzzer and helped the Scarlet Knights snap a 12-game losing streak. Rutgers got hot; Nebraska flubbed easy looks. So it goes. "I think all of the teams in the Big Ten are pretty good," Nebraska's junior guard Kendall Moriarty said afterward. "Everyone has a 50/50 chance, and it’s whoever wants it more and is the tougher team." But the bracketologists are not so forgiving. The Nebraska women, sitting on the tournament bubble with a month to play in the regular season, needed to polish their résumé, and fast.

Those were the stakes on Sunday, when Nebraska hosted No. 2 Iowa in front of a record crowd of 15,042. Since taking over the program at her alma mater in 2016, Williams has made two NCAA tournaments, but lost in the first round both times. Her teams depend more on outside shooting than the average Big Ten team, and as such, can fall prey to variance. But the talent is there, even if the wins come and go: Jaz Shelley, the slick-passing Aussie, back for a fifth year because "you only get a college experience once"; Lincoln native and All-Big Ten forward Alexis Markowski, a reliable double-double; rangy, disruptive Natalie Potts; true freshman Logan Nissley, who can really shoot it.

By dint of her gifts, Caitlin Clark elbows people out of their own stories. Your home court is just another place she sells out. Your team, an endearing and varied collection of players, turns into the faceless mass she drives through or shoots over. You have your role to play, and she has hers. Unranked Nebraska's chance at a statement win became Clark's chance at the NCAA women's scoring record held by Kelsey Plum. Fox tracked her progress all afternoon with a sponsored on-screen countdown box. She entered the game 39 points away.

And then she entered the fourth quarter eight points away, the Hawkeyes up 14. In her career, Clark has scored more points against Nebraska than she has against any other opponent, averaging 34 points in nine games. If she was going to make history, Nebraska might have been the appropriate setting. But the Huskers made themselves protagonists instead. They tried a box-and-one defense that sent Iowa into an offensive lull. "We switched up our defense and we had some incredible people off the bench that went in and face-guarded her," said Shelley.

It was Shelley who turned the fourth-quarter scare into a fourth-quarter collapse for Iowa: With 30 seconds left in the game, she came off a screen from Markowski and hit a three to give Nebraska their first lead of the day. She then iced the game with two pairs of made free throws. "This is the coolest thing I've ever done in my life!" she said, laughing, in the sideline interview. The hosts had crashed the party.

Before the game, Iowa coach Lisa Bluder had mentioned wanting Clark to break the scoring record at home. A few media members chalked up the result to Bluder's wish, but that does a disservice to everyone who played. Clark had her looks in the fourth quarter, but shot 0-for-6 and scored zero points in the entire frame. "That's what a box-and-one is," said Clark. "They're going to take me away. They're going to make me take hard shots."

"I'm sure you guys knew that Clark needed 38 points for the record," a reporter asked Markowski, Shelley, and Potts in the postgame press conference. "Was that a point of emphasis: Hey, it's not happening in your house?" The players shook their heads. The record was Caitlin Clark’s side of the story, not theirs.

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