The weather outside was frightful, and the basketball inside Pinnacle Bank Arena was even worse on Friday night.
Even so, Nebraska survived a frigid shooting performance to beat Stetson 71-62 thanks to an unlikely hero.
All season long, the pivot has been a weakness for the Huskers (10-5) as Nebraska got very little production out of its three-man center rotation. However, with their big guns mostly firing blanks, it was centers Tanner Borchardt and Jordy Tshimanga who put the team on their backs.
“In my mind, the underdogs won tonight,” Coach Tim Miles said. “If you look at this game and you look at the way Stetson played, they out-played us, they had better energy, they ran their stuff better, they defended way better. We were lucky enough to have an underdog in Tanner Borchardt that came out and really did some great things in a short amount of time that I thought helped steady us, give us a little bit of a lead and a shot of confidence. Sometimes you need that, and he really served that purpose tonight.
“It was very timely of course with him earning a scholarship last week and then following through on it this week, but I was very proud of him.”
Borchardt, the 6-foot-8, 265-pound walk-on from Gothenburg who was placed on scholarship prior to the break, checked in during the second half with the game tied at 29-29. Seven minutes and 18 seconds later, Borchardt returned to the bench with the Huskers leading 48-42, and the junior big man had a big hand in building that lead.
After two minutes to catch his breath, Borchardt returned and the Huskers put together a 6-0 run to build the lead up to 10 with just over four minutes to play. The Hatters got no closer than within six the rest of the way.
Borchardt finished with eight points, 10 rebounds (including five on the offensive end) and two blocks in 14 minutes — all career-highs.
“Big game from him,” senior guard Evan Taylor said. “What’s best for us is we’ve been seeing him work since the summer and we know he’s capable of this, but I’m happy for him. Tonight is his night. He’s the man. He’s the reason why we won this game.”
Tshimanga, the 6-foot-11 sophomore who came into Friday’s game shooting 35.3 percent form the field, kept the Huskers afloat with his energy in the first half as he put up four points and eight rebounds in 13 minutes. He finished with six points on 3-of-4 shooting, 10 rebounds and a block in 16 minutes — his best performance of the season.
“Just like T, Jordy played well too,” Taylor said. “I think he had six and 10. That’s big for our five men to have 20 rebounds combined together. You just have to keep working hard and your time will come.”
Junior forward Isaac Copeland tied for the team-high in points with 13, but it took him 20 shot attempts to get there as he finished 5-of-20 from the field and turned the ball over twice without an assist.
“That was probably the worst I’ve ever shot in my career … I was very happy with my shot selection; I was mad at myself because those are shots I make on a daily basis — mid-range shots, layups,” Copeland said. “I missed, what, three or four layups, all left hand? There are a lot of things I’ll go back and watch by myself and go work on by myself. It’s all mental because Big Ten play starts for real for real, so I have to tighten up.”
Junior guard James Palmer Jr., Nebraska’s leading scorer, finished with 13 points on 3-of-12 shooting and junior point guard Glynn Watson Jr. totaled just one point and one assist in 24 minutes. Senior guard Anton Gill finished with 12 points and Taylor added 10.
Nebraska shot just 34.9 percent from the field for the game including 5-of-21 from deep.
Taylor knocked down a 3-pointer on the opening possession, but things went south quickly after that as the Huskers struggled to make shots from everywhere on the floor, including the free-throw line.
Nebraska did use an 8-0 run to pull ahead 18-9 with just under eight minutes to play in the half, but Stetson responded with an 11-2 run of its own to tie it up at 20-all, and the teams headed back to the locker room knotted at 24 apiece.
Nebraska shot 24.1 percent form the field, 23.1 percent from 3 and 50 percent from the foul line in the first half.
The Huskers opened the second half with yet another missed 3 while Stetson buried one on the other end to take its first lead of the game. Nebraska tied it up at 27-all and 29-all, and then Borchardt entered the game.
“Whatever Coach wants of me, I’m going to go in there and do,” Borchardt said. “He told me coming out of halftime he was going to use me off the bench, so I just had to stay ready. It’s all those reps on scout team, getting me ready for this moment.”
His first play was an offensive rebound on which he drew a foul, and Nebraska took advantage of the extra possession as Palmer got a fortunate bounce on a 3. That first possession with Borchardt on the floor set the tone for the rest of the half as Stetson couldn’t keep Borchardt off the glass in its zone defense. On the other end of the floor, the Hatters challenged Borchardt at the rim multiple times, and he blocked or altered shots time and time again.
When Borchardt returned to the bench, Stetson immediately knocked down two 3-pointers to tie the game for the final time. Freshman point guard Thomas Allen stole the ball and took it the other way for a bucket then drew a foul and hit both free throws to put the Huskers back up by four. Borchardt returned to the game and made as much of a difference as he did during his first stint, and Nebraska put the game away.
After three straight seasons of losing a buy game in December, Nebraska finished off the nonconference slate with just one loss at home — to Kansas.
“We’re 10-5; that was our bare minimum for our goals,” Miles said. “We met our goals. Now it’s time to go and make progress in the Big Ten. Really, that’s what we’re here to do. I’m excited for the league. I told our guys we’re going to be the underdogs four of the next five games at least, and we have to practice like underdogs and play like underdogs, just like Tanner did tonight, just like Stetson did tonight.”
The Huskers will head back into Big Ten play already sporting a 1-1 league record after the loss to Michigan State and win against Minnesota earlier in the month. Nebraska will head to Northwestern to take on the Wildcats (9-5, 1-1) on Tuesday at 8 p.m.
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.