The Huskers (13-7, 4-3 Big Ten) topped Illinois (10-9, 0-6 Big Ten) in a thriller on Monday night after James Palmer Jr. knocked in the go-ahead triple at the buzzer to seal a 64-63 win.
You try not to overreact to the final moments, because there were both good and bad signs from the Huskers in the win.
We'll start with the good, and no it wasn't Palmer's buzzer-beater (though that got Pinnacle Bank Arena rocking). No, let's talk defense. The Nebraska defense was incredible. Again.
They’ve done it several times this season, but they proved once again they can win the ugly ones. The Huskers moved to 10-1 on the season when they hold opponents under 70 points. Despite the offensive struggles and the rebounding woes, the intensity on the less glamorous end never faded.
Nebraska held Illinois to 39 percent from the field and 17 percent from three. Miles again busted out the 1-3-1 zone for stretches at a time and it worked wonders. The Huskers strung together a 10-0 scoring run to begin the second half on the back of their defensive pressure.
Remember all the offensive boards for Illinois? They only had 14 second chance points. That’s tremendous defense in situations where you’re typically out of position.
And all the turnovers – Illinois had 16 of them – led to 24 Husker points. It’s promising to see a team struggle so mightily on offense and still string together defensive stops.
Now for the bad. Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Nebraska struggled with its shot, despite the game-winner.
Entering Monday’s game, the Huskers were shooting 39 percent from the field and 30 percent from deep. There’s a joke to be made about the frigid temperatures outside Pinnacle Bank Arena compared to the shooting but let’s save those for another day; just know it was rough.
Nebraska missed 16-of-25 shots in the first half. It hit one trey in 11 tries. It led 32-30 at the break largely thanks to its defense, but more on that in a minute. The Huskers hit 7-of-11 to begin the second half but chilled significantly as the half wore on.
They finished at 41 percent from the field, 22 percent from deep.
I liked the passing for the most part. Forward Isaiah Roby made some solid backdoor passes from the high post and Nebraska generally found the open man, shots just didn’t fall. There were a few questionable decisions on fast break opportunities but even if the ball didn’t find the right guy, the Huskers got to the free throw line.
The shooting woes have lasted for almost the entirety of Big Ten play. With Michigan (Jan. 18) and Ohio State (Jan. 22) awaiting Nebraska in games that seem to be growing more important for the Huskers’ tournament chances, they’re running out of time to fix the shot.
The Really Bad
Whether it was because starting center Jordy Tshimanga was still out, or small-ball lineups or something else, Nebraska was bullied on the boards.
Illinois won the battle 46-29 and picked up 18 offensive rebounds on 36 missed shots. For the math whiz out there, that’s a brutal percentage to stomach for Nebraska.
Reserve center Duby Okeke played two minutes of unimpactful ball for head coach Tim Miles, meaning the Huskers were small a ton. That starts to explain the rebounding issues but, no, it doesn’t excuse them. On paper, the Huskers should get a lift in that area when Tshimanga returns to the team but they just haven’t been a very good rebounding unit all season long.
Roby led the way with 10 boards, but second on the team was guard Evan Taylor – who came off the bench – with five. Forward Isaac Copeland had three in 27 minutes. Tanner Borchardt, the only other big who saw the floor, had none in just seven minutes. That’s not going to cut it against the better teams in the league.