Dominant defense and an all-league performance by Glynn Watson Jr. led the Huskers to a 78-68 win over No. 14 Minnesota on Tuesday night.
Nebraska (7-3, 1-1) debuted a new pre-game light show but the Huskers played lights out on defense all game long as Nebraska held Minnesota to 32.4 percent shooting including 30.8 percent inside the arc.
“I feel like this is our team,” Watson said. “When guys share the ball and get each other open, make it easier, and just playing defense — that’s got to be one of our main things also. So we keep doing that, there's not going to be too many teams that can beat us."
The Huskers held the Big Ten’s leading scorer, Minnesota forward Jordan Murphy, to just 10 points on 4-of-12 shooting with three turnovers. Murphy grabbed 12 rebounds (including eight on the offensive end) but didn’t secure his 10th straight double-double with a dunk until late in the game with the Huskers holding a fairly comfortable lead.
“Me and Roby going into the game were like ‘We need to really focus and lock into this guy, but I think it took all five on defense. He’s a good player, but we were able to get him into foul trouble early and kind of throw him off a little bit.”
The Huskers blocked nine shots led by senior center Duby Okeke with three and junior forward Isaac Copeland and senior guard Evan Taylor with two apiece.
Murphy had been the Big Ten’s most dominant player heading into Tuesday night after averaging 21 points and 12.9 rebounds (both Big Ten highs), but it was Nebraska’s Watson who asserted himself as the best player on the floor. Watson scored 20 of his 29 points in the second half and grabbed a team-high nine rebounds to lead the Huskers to victory.
“This is the all-conference Glynn, right?” Coach Tim Miles said. “He did a great job all night … There wasn’t anything new or different; it was just Glynn.”
Nebraska scored the first two buckets of the game and took a 5-0 lead as Minnesota missed its first six shots, but the Gophers scored the next seven to take the lead. The teams traded the advantage back and forth a couple of times until Nebraska reeled off a 10-0 run fueled by transition buckets to take control 22-14.
Minnesota battled back to within one, but Nebraska never relinquished the lead and closed the half on a 5-0 run to lead 39-31.
Nebraska limited Murphy to four points on 1-of-7 shooting in eight minutes in the first half as he picked up two fouls and watched the rest of the period from the bench. Palmer and Copeland led the Huskers with nine points apiece.
The Huskers opened the second half with a 9-1 run featuring seven points by Watson and an alley-oop from James Palmer Jr. to to Duby Okeke. The Huskers maintained a double digit lead throughout the half thanks to sustained strong defense and timely buckets by Watson.
Trailing by 17 after a 3 by Palmer, Minnesota turned up the pressure full-court with less than four minutes to play and started chipping away at the lead, using an 11-2 run fueled by three Nebraska turnovers to pull within eight with one minute to play. However, Nebraska shot 8-of-10 from the free-throw line down the stretch and the Gophers ran out of time.
Watson shot 6-of-9 from the field and 7-of-8 from the line in the second half. He was the only Husker with more than one field goal in the final 20 minutes.
All nine Huskers that played scored at least four points and all nine of them grabbed at least one rebound as the Huskers outscored Minnesota 18-5 from the bench and out rebounded the Gophers 42-38.
“I thought we had better depth than they did, so I thought if we kept running fresh bodies at them, that might be beneficial for us and I think it was,” Miles said.”
Copeland finished with 12 ponts and five rebounds while Palmer added 11 points and a game-high four assists.
Tuesday’s game featured an attendance of 13,847 fans for “Stripe the Vault Night” as Adidas provided T-Shirts for the fans color-coded to specific sections. Minnesota fell to 0-5 at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
“The crowd was amazing,” Miles said. “I think that everybody in there dressed in the candy stripe was tremendous. They were so loud, there was such a great energy there. Pinnacle, I’ve never dreamt they could be like that when I was coaching all these places. I’ve been to some really cool places where it gets loud and obnoxious, but Pinnacle has really got a great vibe and the guys fed off that. There’s no doubt. That was the first time it’s been like that this season and I think that helped.”
Protecting home court is one of the team’s primary goals this season, and the win improves the Huskers to 5-0 at the Vault. Miles said he keeps bringing it up in order to keep it fresh in the players’ minds.
“I’ve said I can’t believe we don’t have a better home court advantage,” Miles said. “We have too many great fans and such a great situation, it’s ridiculous that we are giving up all these home games. So tonight, I don’t know what our record is, but I know we haven’t lost. I know the next one we have here we expect to win, and that’s saying a lot. Especially against that kind of an opponent, but that’s the mentality and there’s no second thoughts.”
“That kind of opponent” is No. 2 Kansas (7-0). However, first, the Huskers have to take the short trip up I-80 to take on Creighton (6-2) on Saturday. Nebraska will need to bring the same kind of defensive effort they showed against the Gophers as the Bluejays are averaging over 90 points this season following a 11-67 win against North Dakota on Tuesday.
“We have no choice,” Miles said. “I mean, Creighton hung 111 tonight, so we got to figure out how to defend that action, too.”
Tipoff at CenturyLink Center Omaha is set for 1:30 p.m. on FS1.
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.