Somehow, some way, Nebraska is still kicking.
Less than 24 hours after coming back to beat Rutgers to open the Big Ten Tournament in Chicago, Nebraska absolutely took it to No. 5 seed Maryland (22-10, 13-7 Big Ten). The Huskers led for 33:15 of the game and downed the Terps 69-61 to advance to the quarterfinals against No. 4 Wisconsin.
Here are three takes from the game.
Perfect Plan, Flawless Execution
Nebraska’s shorthanded. That has been touted ad nauseam at this point. But in order to make up for what they lack, the Huskers have to play clean and foul-free on defense and patient on offense. Control the tempo and the number of possessions. Save for a handful of long jumpers early in the shot clock, Nebraska played under control on offense.
But that kind of gameplan doesn’t work if the defense is hemorrhaging points. You need to have a flawless game on that end.
For the most part, Nebraska did just that.
The Huskers worked more in a zone than they have at any point this season. They forced Maryland to play out on the perimeter and make shots rather than being able to get inside and feed its two bigs, Bruno Fernando and Jaylin Smith.
Fernando took four shots all game. He entered the day averaging nearly 15 points a night. Nebraska elected to try and play him straight up earlier in the season and got burned, but this time, the plan was to send double teams every time Fernando touched the ball. The Huskers either denied him touches or gave him nowhere to go when he could get the ball.
And Nebraska contained the perimeter about as well as it could have, too. Point guard Anthony Cowan — the Terps’ other leading scorer — was ineffective for all of the first half and well into the second. There wasn’t a ton of dribble-penetration and shot-creation out of it; Maryland’s offense for long stretches was a lot of difficult shot-making out of iso sets or late clock pick-and-rolls.
Early on in the second half, Maryland made its run. Everyone knew it was coming at some point, but Nebraska aided it. In the first four minutes of the half, the Terps scored nine straight to cut the margin to five. Nebraska was taking quick shots on offense and struggling to contain the dribble-drive on defense.
But Nebraska came right back with a 9-0 run of its own to stretch the lead back to 14 and it was by-the-book for the greater part of the rest of the game.
Maryland shot 36 percent for the game, turned it over 11 times (that’s 33 forced turnovers in two games for the NU defense) and missed 14 of its 20 triples. The Huskers outscored the Terps 30-22 in the paint and gave up just one second-chance bucket. As the vastly smaller team, they matched the Terps on the boards, too.
It was a great plan from the coaching staff and even better execution by the team.
Witnessing Something Special
A ton was probably written about this Wednesday, but it bears repeating again after another win. The determination of this team right now is special. Glynn Watson Jr. and James Palmer Jr. have each played 40 minutes in back-to-back games on back-to-back nights. Isaiah Roby has gotten exactly four minutes of rest. Johnny Trueblood is playing a huge role for the first time in four years. Tanner Borchardt has become an indispensable defender and rebounder in postseason action.
This Husker team has the deck stacked against it and it keeps punching back.
Let’s talk about that run. It’s the second game-changing run in as many days for the Huskers. A 15-0 run against Rutgers kept the season alive. That 9-0 run early in the second half Thursday was the scoring difference in this latest win. Down the stretch, as Maryland started knocking down shots and building momentum, Nebraska kept immediately snuffing it out with responses.
With two minutes to play, and the Terps having cut the lead to six, Trueblood grabbed an offensive rebound over Fernando. Not a typo. Trueblood, the 6-foot-3 point guard, beat Fernando, the 6-foot-10 forward, for a loose ball. It led to a Palmer triple.
This is a Nebraska team defending like we haven’t seen it defend away from home in months. This is a Nebraska team that’s smiling like we haven’t seen it smile in even longer. Trueblood freaking outscored Fernando.
There’s something to be said about a shrunk rotation with everyone knowing exactly what kind of role they have to play to be successful. Watson and Palmer both know they have to score, and they’re scoring. Roby knows he has to be an anchor on defense and he’s anchoring. Trueblood and Thorir Thorbjarnarson know they have to find ways to impact the game and they’re doing it.
Star Showing from Star Guards
Palmer scored 24 points on 13 shots.
Meaning in the last 80 minutes of conference tournament action, the guy who was shooting sub-40 percent entering the tourney has scored 58 points on 32 shots. He’s taken 30 free throws. With a sky-high usage rate, he’s only turned it over four times. With all those minutes and all that offensive responsibility, he’s been a plus defender with only four fouls.
Watson scored 19 points on 12 shots.
He wasn’t spectacular like Palmer the last time out, though he needed to be. But this time out, he was the perfect Robin to Palmer’s Batman. Roby got his rather inefficiently, but Watson and Palmer provided the one-two punch Nebraska needs from its two leading guards. They combined for 43 of NU’s 69 total points and 22 of its 37 second-half points.
Palmer is playing out of his mind right now, attacking the paint when he needs to and forcing his way to the free throw line. He went supernova for a stretch again in the first half against Maryland, with 10 of NU’s 14 points in the last 12 minutes of the frame. Watson is now hitting shots (he went 3-for-5 from 3). You have to assume that tired legs will play a factor when the Huskers hit the court Friday for a third straight game, but if these two guys can keep up the pace they’re on, Nebraska will be a tough out.
The senior guards aren’t ready for their Nebraska careers to end and they’re playing like it.
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.