Nebraska put together its most complete game when it needed it most, dominating No. 23 Michigan 72-52 in front of a packed and rowdy crowd of 14,589 at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Thursday night.
Nebraska (14-7, 5-3) snapped a 10-game losing streak to the Wolverines (including eight straight since Nebraska joined the Big Ten) and handed Michigan (16-5, 5-3) its biggest loss of the season.
“I was just very proud of the guys tonight,” Coach Tim Miles said. "[Assistant Coach] Kenya Hunter put together a great defensive game plan. We spent a lot of time, he and I, even in the offseason, how we’re going to beat these teams that spread the floor so well. I thought Kenya made some adjustments, some of the switches and some of that, and our guys bought in. They were very focused, very competitive with energy, and did a great job. I’m really proud of our guys.”
Defensively, the Huskers held Michigan to 37.5 percent from the field including 4-of-18 from 3 and forced 12 turnovers. With Nebraska’s small-ball lineup featuring sophomore forward Isaiah Roby at center, the Huskers switched every screen by the Wolverines and caused all kinds of problems for a normally potent offensive team. Michigan’s leading scorer, Moritz Wagner, finished with two points, 12.9 below his season average.
“They were like verbally frustrated, because they were yelling at each other and you could see that,” Roby said. “We were feeding off that and the crowd was feeding off it. It started early with them.”
Offensively, the Huskers were just as effective, shooting 55.3 percent from the field including 5-of-11 from deep. Four scorers finished in double figures for the Huskers led by James Palmer Jr. with 19 on 5-of-8 from the field (2-of-3 from 3) and 7-of-11 from the foul line.
Roby finished with a career-high 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting and also chipped in four rebounds, a game-high three assists, a game-high two blocks and a steal in 29 minutes. Roby also had three of Nebraska’s nine turnovers, but all three came in the first half.
“I think he’s trying to kill me,” Miles said. “I’m down to this. I love him, but he’ll go do the most spectacular thing an then throw it to the 5-9 guy and throw it 5-9 feet over his head. Isaiah is one of those focus guys. He made some mistakes, but he was a little tired tonight or not just locked in, but he’s really a special player.”
Senior guard Anton Gill knocked down two triples and finished with 10 points while Isaac Copeland added 12 points and four boards. Senior guard Evan Taylor brought the entry off the bench with five points, a team-high seven rebounds, three steals, one block and one assist with no turnovers in 27 minutes.
“Everybody touched the ball,” Copeland said. “Everybody was aggressive. I think on the stat sheet, you’ll see everybody scored that played, pretty much. When we’re like that, we’re hard to guard.”
Roby set the tone for the Huskers from the first possession, knocking down a 3-pointer from the top of the key to open the scoring. Roby showed as much aggression as he ever had in his young career, finishing above the rim and making plays for others on offense early on.
The Huskers took control with an 8-0 run heading into the under-12 media timeout, giving themselves an 18-12 lead. Both teams struggled to score over the several few minutes as Nebraska maintained its six-point advantage with a 20-14 lead at the under-8 timeout.
Nebraska never let up defensively, extending its stretch of holding Michigan scoreless to 6:05 to take a 10-point lead before Charles Matthews hit a pair of free throws to end the drought.
Roby immediately answered with a dunk on the other end. On the ensuing defensive possession, 6-foot-7 freshman Isaiah Livers had the 6-foot-5 Evan Taylor isolated in the post and rose up for a jumper over the top of him, but Taylor blocked the shot, leading to a run-out by Palmer and a dump-off to Copeland for a layup as Nebraska took its largest lead of the half at 28-16.
The Huskers took a 32-21 lead into the break after holding Michigan to 8-of-25 from the field and forcing nine turnovers.
Michigan pulled within eight a couple of times early in the second half, but Nebraska used a 14-4 run to pull ahead 49-31 after the under-12 media timeout.
Michigan responded with an 8-2 run to cut the deficit to 12 and it looked like Nebraska was teetering on the brink, one big play from going over the edge and letting the Wolverines back into the game. However, rather than calling a timeout, Miles let his guys play on and Palmer scored the next five points to push it back to 17, and it never dropped below 16 again.
“That’s my wife’s rule — any time it gets to 12, automatic timeout so it doesn’t go under 10,” Miles said. “That’s what she’s instructed me for years. So it would have been Kari Johnson’s timeout, but not mine. I was going to sit on this one.”
Miles sent his scout team in to close out the game with 1:18 to play and senior walk-on Malcolm Laws dropped in a tough runner (his first bucket of the season), giving him the same amount of points as Wagner — who the student section was taunting all night — in 31 fewer minutes.
“I think you can see tonight why Nebraska is 11-1 at home,” Michigan Coach John Beilein said. “They played Kansas really well. Playing small right now is a really difficult challenge for people to play against. They were playing on short rest, and we were playing on really short rest with the run we are in right now. So credit Nebraska, they have a great team plan. They played much better than us and they get the ‘W.’ They have a chance this year to be a very good team. I don’t think we will be the last team that will come out of here and not come away with a win.”
Sophomore center Jordy Tshimanga, who took some time away from the team as he considered transferring and missed the last two games, returned to the floor in the first half amid a round of applause form the fans and gave the Huskers three rebounds and an assist in seven minutes.
“I was happy for him,” Miles said. “This was just a difficult personal thing with Jordy, I think. I think he feels pressure to please people and to do well, and I think it was kind of one of those moments when you get a tipping point and the pressure explodes and I’m glad we got it ironed out. His family was awesome in helping us figure out ‘what’s the deal?’ Jordy is a good kid and you’re not going to hold it against him. But at the same time, you have to figure out where he fits in. He can help our team, he deserves to play so I’m going to play him.”
Thursday’s win was Nebraska’s second win of the season against a ranked opponent, although the first came against a Minnesota team that has since struggled mightily since. Nebraska will get another shot for a top-25 win on Monday as the Huskers head to Columbus to take on Ohio State.
“It was big for us because it started a win streak for us,” Roby said about the win. “We’re going into Ohio State, at Rutgers, so we have a two-game road trip. It’s going to be big to keep the momentum going.”
Tipoff on Monday is set for 7 p.m. on BTN.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.