Nebraska’s offense was stop-and-start throughout the evening, but Nebraska’s defense and ability to get to the free-throw line carried the Huskers to a 75-60 win over Illinois (2-6, 0-1) at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Sunday night.
Three Huskers scored in double figures led by senior guard James Palmer Jr. as the Huskers (7-1, 1-0) drew 23 fouls and shot 30 free throw attempts.
Both team’s scored on their opening possession, but then Nebraska ripped off a big run and never relinquished the lead again.
“It was really important,” Coach Tim Miles said about the start. “With these guys, to get on top of them and then keep them there at an arm’s length, that has been hard for a lot of teams to do. Gonzaga hasn’t done it. Notre Dame didn’t do it. We were able to. I think getting to foul line for us was important. Then, the fact that we made some 3s tonight helped too because if we can do both of those, then you’re a tough out.”
Nebraska attempted a season-low 14 3-pointers but knocked down six of them (42.9 percent) and converted 25 of their 30 attempts from the charity stripe.
“What was great to see is I think those second-half shots go down, Nana [Akenten] hit a 2, they went zone, Glynn [Watson Jr.] hits a 3, Isaac Copeland hits a 3. Those were really big plays for us. We’ve got a lot of guys that can make them and will make them. James hit one. We’re not great, but we’re great at some other stuff, which is good. We need to be.”
One thing the Huskers weren't great at on Sunday was taking care of the ball as the Huskers finished with just 13 assists to 16 turnovers.
“Illinois does a terrific job defensively in terms of creating turnovers and they’re so good on the ball,” Miles said. “They force you to play strong all night. If there is one thing that I didn’t think we did well it was handle the ball well. I thought we had far too many turnovers. It was interesting after the game, James was going to be interviewed on TV, and I said, ‘You did a great job tonight, James.’ And he goes, ‘Yeah, too many turnovers, man; I’ve got to clean that up.’ That’s what you want to hear, and he wouldn’t have to say that. He could say, ‘Remember I got to the foul line 14 times or whatever,’ but it’s always good when you hear it.”
Palmer recorded his second-straight 20-point game as the senior finished with 23 on 4-of-12 from the field (3-of-6 from deep) and 12-of-14 at the foul line. He added a team-high four assists but turned the ball over five times as well. Palmer got a lot of his work done in the open floor as fast break points field a few of Nebraska’s runs throughout the night.
“I think that’s when we’re at our best,” Copeland said. “James, he’s pretty much unstoppable in transition. You’ve got to foul him or he’s going to score. I think any time we can rebound and push it with us four, we’re pretty hard to stop.”
Copeland added 16 points on 6-of-9 shooting with five rebounds. Watson added 14 points on 5-of-9 shooting (2-of-4 from 3) and tied junior forward Isaiah Roby for the team lead with six rebounds.
The Huskers held Illinois’ top two scorers, sophomore Trent Frazier and freshman Ayo Dosunmu, to a combined 19 points on 6-of-19 shooting with six assists and six turnovers.
“We had to get to both of their guards, Ayo and Trent, because they’re very, very good, and I thought we did a good job on both of them. You just have to have them have your full attention all 40 minutes because they’re really good, they can hurt you a lot of different ways.”
The game was the second straight on the road for the Illinois after falling short 76-74 at Notre Dame on Tuesday. Paid attendance was 15,764 as the Huskers opened conference play at the Vault.
“No disrespect to Notre Dame, but it's a little different when you play your first Big Ten game,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “Everybody knows one another a little better. This placed was a little more juiced and had a little more atmosphere than South Bend. I don't mean any disrespect in any way. I was a little curious to see how we were going to act on life on the road in the Big Ten. You have to have a toughness and an edge. You got a team with fifth-year senior and four-year starters, they had that poise, and we did not. That's something that we saw today.”
Nebraska came out out of the gates on fire, using an 11-0 run to jump ahead 13-2 less than three minutes into the game. The Huskers scored on their first seven possessions as Nebraska’ first empty possession came at the 16:05 mark when Watson got blocked after a great cut to the basket.
Nebraska led 15-7 at the first media timeout, but both teams seemingly forgot how to score after that as both teams went scoreless over the next 4:14. Aaron Jordan knocked down a 3-pointer to snap the cold spell and pull Illinois within five.
Copeland split a pair of free throws to pull Nebraska out of its slump, which had lasted 4:47, but Illinois scored on the other end to cut its deficit to four. Nebraska got going again from there, ripping off a 9-2 run to take its largest lead yet at 25-13.
The Huskers fell into another offensive rut, going 4:09 without a point as Illinois pulled within five with seven straight points including a 3 and a dunk by Kipper Nichols. The Huskers got to the free-throw line to start another 9-1 run that pushed the lead to 13.
Jordan hit a jumper at the 2:17 mark to make it 34-23 but that was the last bucket of the half for the Illini as Nebraska scored the last five points to take a 39-23 lead into the locker room.
The Huskers shot 55 percent from the field including 3-of-6 from deep and got to the line 16 times, hitting all but two of them, but they also turned the ball over nine times. Palmer led the way with 12 points as Nebraska starting five scored all but two of the Huskers’ first-half points.
The Illini shot 9-of-25 from the field and only scored five points off Nebraska’s turnovers while giving the ball away 11 times themselves.
Nebraska’s offensive woes continued into the second half as the Illinois opened the period on an 8-2 run to pull within 10 before the first media timeout. After trading points for a few possessions, Watson picked up his fourth foul on a charge call at the 15:21 mark, and after Watson took a seat Dosunmu knocked down a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to single digits for the first time since 29-21 with a few minutes to play in the first half.
Nebraska put together an 8-3 stretch including four points by sophomore Nana Akenten off the bench to stretch the lead back to 14. A 6-1 Illinois run cut it to nine again. Soon after, Watson returned to the court after nearly six minutes on the bench and Palmer knocked down a 3-pointer to push it back to 13.
“[Watson] was in tough shape with foul trouble and I think you have to commend Tom Allen, James Palmer, Amir Harris did a really good job just coming in and handling the ball and doing well, and we needed that,” Miles said. “It wasn’t always pretty, but that’s just the way they’re going to muck it up, so to speak, and you’re going to have to deal with it. It was unfortunate, but it’s part of the deal. I was happy with what our other guys did but I was not comfortable at any stretch, at any point, without him.”
Back-to-back Illini buckets cut it to nine one more time but the Huskers delivered a knockout blow with an 11-2 run as Nebraska took its biggest lead of the game at 71-53.
That run featured 3-pointers by Watson and Palmer as well as a transition slam by Roby. Illinois got no closer than 15 the rest of the way.
Nebraska only shot 42.3 percent from the field in the second half but got to the line another 14 times.
The game was radio play-by-play man Kent Pavelka’s 1,000th with the Huskers. Nebraska recognized Pavelka at halftime as associate athletic director Marc Boehm presented him with a framed jersey with the number 1,000 on it and Miles gave Pavelka the game ball after the win.
“Kent Pavelka is an icon in my eyes,” Miles said. “First of all, not many people get to 1,000 games. For him to do it, he’s great with the call and he’s truly a homer. He is with us, he travels with us and he’s part of the team. For us to be able to present a game ball to him, honoring him, and to be able to get him a jersey and recognize him at halftime, first of all it’s well deserved. What I have found in my time … these guys are historians. On legends night, they know every dirty secret that’s out there. You listen to the play-by-play guy and he’s got some info for you. I hope college athletics never loses that because that’s still a cool part of life, those radio calls.
“We plug our radio into our broadcast. So when I watch our games, I can call Kent and say ‘knock it off, Kent.’ He’s been great and I’m happy that we could honor him tonight. I’m really happy we got a W on his 1,000th game.”
The Huskers will continue early Big Ten play on Wednesday with a trip to Minnesota before diving back into nonconference play at home against Creighton on Saturday.
“I like our team and I’m glad we won, but I’m going to blink and we’re going to be ready for Minnesota on Wednesday and then we’ve got another ball game on Saturday,” Miles said. “I’m happy, you want to enjoy it. But at the same time, when I walked into our locker room after the game, somebody had written “Minnesota” on the board. I thought that’s always the mark of somebody’s mind’s in the right spot, at least one guy.”
Tipoff in Minneapolis is set for 8 p.m. on Wednesday 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.