The 24th-ranked Huskers (11-3, 1-2 Big Ten) dropped a tight, back-and-forth affair on the road Wednesday night to Maryland (11-3, 2-1 Big Ten), 74-72.
Here are three takeaways from the game.
The Youth vs. Experience Question
Coaches talk about it all the time; the teams that do well in college basketball are the teams that can get old. Of course, there are the Dukes and Kentuckys and North Carolinas of the world that can consistently land McDonald’s All-Americans, but for the programs that can’t get elite one-and-done talent, the best are senior-laden. Think Villanova the last couple years.
Nebraska is as old as any in the Big Ten. The core four go senior, senior, senior, junior.
Maryland, on the other hand, is the third-youngest team in college basketball.
So when you look at the game, “youth” shows up in how you respond to adversity. Nebraska responded great when presented with its first opportunity, then not so much on the second.
When Maryland turned a 1-for-8 shooting slide from Nebraska into a 6-0 scoring run for itself late in the first half and took a 33-29 lead, Nebraska needed to answer. An inexperienced team in a hostile environment might have pressed and shot itself into a bigger hole.
Instead, Nebraska slowed down, ran offense and ripped off 10 points in the final 2:59 of the half to wrestle back the lead and go into the half up 39-35.
The way things were shaping up, you knew the Huskers would need to call on that again to close the second half, and sure enough, things tightened late. Maryland surged to a 67-63 lead with 5:13 to play thanks to a pair of Anthony Cowan Jr. triples.
But Maryland also just threw a possession away to Nebraska a minute later, then James Palmer Jr. swiped a sloppy pass and took it coast-to-coast for two and a 71-70 lead. Maryland followed up all that by missing the front end of a one-and-one with under two minutes to play. Youth doing youth things.
If Nebraska had just kept on keeping on like it did to close the first, maybe things end differently. But I don’t think this was a case of Nebraska making any mental mistakes down the stretch, it just missed shots.
Freshman forward Jalen Smith scored the Terps’ last eight points, including the game-winning floater with 3.8 seconds left. On the other end, Palmer missed a free throw with under a minute to play (one of eight missed freebies from the Huskers) and took each of the Huskers’ last four shots. The best scorer and player for Nebraska (and a guy who finished with 26 points and seven boards) got the ball late.
You’ll live with that, mostly because it’s what you want. You want the ball in your best player’s hands late. You don’t want rushed, panicky shots from other guys.
Sometimes youth just makes a good play. I think that was the case Wednesday night.
Alternative “Maryland is young” point: sophomore center Bruno Fernando was damn near unguardable in the paint when he didn’t give the ball away. He just gave the ball away a lot. He finished with six turnovers to go with the 18-point, 17-rebound double-double. Value the rock young fella.
The Bruno Question
About Bruno… Nebraska had a strange plan with him. Head coach Tim Miles elected to play the 6-foot-10, 240-pounder straight up without any help defense. Isaiah Roby drew the primary assignment, giving up two inches of height and what looked like 100 pounds in weight at times. Isaac Copeland got some run, reserve center Tanner Borchardt got some run and freshman stickman Brady Heiman even drew a post-up.
Fernando overpowered everyone and the Huskers never doubled. They threw help Fernando’s way a couple times but that help never stayed, it just showed for a few seconds and retreated back to the perimeter.
The big guy was able to establish deep inside consistently and Maryland looked to feed him. He’d drop-step and fake up, then either go under or spin back the opposite direction and lay it up. The move kept coming like clockwork and it kept working. Nebraska kept going for the first action.
Nebraska is not known for size. Length, yes, but sheer size is not a strength. So trying to play a bigger front line man-for-man is weird in the first place. Then add to it the fact Maryland ranks in the bottom third of the country in 3-point takes and 209th in 3-point percentage and it feels even weirder. You shouldn’t have been afraid of kick-out triples from the corners going in.
Maryland’s interior presence changed this game.
Nebraska wasn’t attacking the rim offensively with the same reckless abandon it usually does and Maryland dominated the offensive boards at the other end. Maryland won the rebounding battle 38-28 (with 14 offensive boards) and the points in the paint battle 38-26. The Terps got 12 second-chance points in the second half alone.
Fernando setting such a physical tone early impacted everything late. He drew so much focus, it gave Smith the little bit of extra freedom to do his damage. (There’s something aesthetically pleasing about Maryland going uber-big on its front line with Fernando and Smith while the rest of basketball goes small. Thank you for that, Mark Turgeon.)
All the Other Questions
Nebraska actually got a pretty decent look on its final possession.
Here's that last play by #Nebrasketball. Got Roby free going to the rim. Pass was just a bit too low. pic.twitter.com/HJv8QmhkBE
— Jacob Padilla (@JacobPadilla_) January 3, 2019
Given where it had to inbound the ball, this is a heck of a look for Roby at the rim. He beat his guy, the pass is just behind him. And no, that wasn’t a foul. Give Miles credit for that play, that was a legitimate opportunity out of nothing.
And while you’re at it, don’t cancel the season yet. The Huskers will be in for many more like Wednesday night’s game. The Big Ten could place something like eight teams in the NCAA Tournament this year. It’s going to be a battle to win night in and night out. Nebraska needs to not let things linger and move forward, a couple of losses in a row could be the start of a bad snowball.
We’ll really see what the Huskers are made of when they take the court again. Because next up is No. 25 Iowa (11-2, 0-2 Big Ten) on the road on Sunday. Tip is set for 4:30 p.m. CT.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.