It was a painful scene for the Big Red Friday as guard Anton Gill sat, hunched over at the end of the Huskers’ bench with the clock ticking down to zero. Nebraska earned a double-bye and a four-seed in the Big Ten tournament on the strength of its regular season and then went one-and-done, running into a buzzsaw Michigan team.
The Huskers (22-10, 13-5 Big Ten) fell 77-58 to fifth-seeded Michigan (26-7, 13-5 Big Ten). Here are some takeaways from the afternoon.
Too Much Mo
Remember the Huskers’ Jan. 18 Wolverine beatdown in Lincoln? Of course you do. Nebraska won by 20 and that really jumpstarted this march towards Madness the Huskers have been on lately.
Well, Moritz Wagner remembers it too. The Wolverines’ 6-foot-10 German import played 32 minutes in that first meeting and scored a season-low two points. It was so bad, he was getting mocked by the home crowd as he walked back to the bench late in the game, rendered ineffective by a swarming Nebraska defense.
On Friday at Madison Square Garden, the defense wasn’t swarming, the crowd wasn’t mocking and Wagner wasn’t firing blanks from the field. He scored the first eight for the Wolverines and finished with 20.
He rebounded it well — notching his first double-double since Feb. 11 with 13 boards. He patrolled the paint like a menace — blocking a pair of shots and altering several others. And, most importantly, he stayed on the floor. A day earlier, Wagner fouled out in 16 minutes. Against the Huskers, Wagner had just one personal.
There was a moment in the second half when James Palmer Jr. slashed to the bucket and, on his gather, Wagner caught Palmer’s wrist up high and spun him awkwardly. The foul was called and Palmer stepped to the line for a pair of free throws he would sink. It cut the Michigan lead to seven, and yet, Wagner was still talking. Freshman Jordan Poole was talking by the scorer’s table waiting to check in. Michigan had this air of confidence about them all afternoon and, regardless of the score, felt in control.
That seemed to emanate from Wagner. Nebraska had no answer for the big man.
The Huskers have been a second-half team all season long, but no amount of work in the second half of Friday’s outing could undo what Nebraska did in the first 20 minutes.
The defense wasn’t bad — it wasn’t great like that first outing, but it wasn’t bad, the Wolverines still only shot 44 percent from the floor — but the offense was horrendous. The Huskers hit four of their first five shots from the floor and had a 9-5 lead at the 16:09 mark.
They hit three shots from the field the entire rest of the half.
Of the remaining 25 shots the Huskers got up, three of them fell. Palmer was the only guy to hit more than one shot from the field, providing 10 first-half points and the only spark of life the Huskers had over the first 20 minutes. That they only trailed by 10 at the break was a blessing.
The offense stayed frigid in the second half — 39 percent shooting, six turnovers — but Nebraska played Michigan closer. The Huskers finished at 30 percent shooting from the field and 25 percent from three. The free throw disparity was huge — 22-of-27 for the Huskers and just 12-of-15 for the Wolverines and that’s a testament to Nebraska’s effort to get to the basket more in the second half.
It was just too hard to wipe away that 16-minute stretch. Nebraska built itself a hole while building up Michigan’s confidence. Not a great combination.
The Nail in the Coffin?
Creighton athletic director and chair of the NCAA Tournament selection committee Bruce Rasmussen was on hand for Friday’s affair. He got a first-hand view of the Huskers, with a week’s worth of preparation, enter into a game they absolutely couldn’t afford to lose and get punched in the jaw.
We’ve talked plenty about tournament chances and quadrant wins and RPI and everything else, but this one was simple. Nebraska needed to win. They didn’t have enough on the strength of their regular season alone to not win another key game.
They didn’t win, and they might pay for it on Selection Sunday. Nebraska beat Michigan by 20 at home, sure, but on a neutral court they were blown away, outgunned and outmatched. That will show.
Those two teams that have missed the NCAA tournament with 13 conference wins since 1985? Oregon and Washington? Both lost in the first games of their conference tournament.
It’s going to be a very long, very painful wait for March 11.
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.