Nebraska traded blows with No. 10 Michigan State throughout the first 28 minutes, but the Huskers couldn’t muster enough offense to stay in it down the stretch as the Spartans pulled away for a 79-67 win in East Lansing on Wednesday.
Nebraska (6-9, 0-4 Big Ten) got off to a great start offensively but cooled off before long and never found a way to get back into that same rhythm.
“This is, they say, the loudest crowd of the year for them with their Izzone alumni game and I thought we came out and really handled it early and really had a great flow going, especially offensively,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said on his post-game radio appearance. “Defensively, I thought we were better, especially guarding the line, limiting attempts. They hit some tough shots and then we had that stretch where we had a couple of loose turnovers … But our energy, effort was where it needs to be and continues to be right now. This is one of the hardest places to play in the country and we still gave ourselves a chance.”
Max Christie won the battle of 5-star freshmen and the Spartans (13-2, 4-0 Big Ten) got contributions from up and down the lineup as Michigan State shot 51.8% from the field including 8-of-17 from 3. Christie finished with a game-high 21 points on 7-of-9 from the field (3-of-4 from 3) and 4-of-4 from the free-throw line.
The Huskers held the Spartans’ top two scorers, Gabe Brown and Marcus Bingham Jr., to 18 points on 8-of-19 shooting, but Malik Hall picked up the slack with 12 points on 5-of-6 shooting off the bench while point guard Tyson Walker chipped in 10 points and five assists.
Derrick Walker was the best post player in the game, finishing with 16 points on 8-of-9 shooting to help give the Huskers a 34-28 edge in paint points. It was Walker’s third straight double-digit scoring game and his ninth time this season missing one shot or less in a game.
“We’ve just got to continue to make it a point to get it to him down there,” Hoiberg said. “I thought we had a couple times where he had post position on a couple calls and we just couldn’t get it to him. He’s been so efficient for us, obviously, our most efficient player with the way he’s shooting the basketball right now at the rim. We just have to continue to try to get that into him and play through him, whether it’s him scoring the ball or passing the ball. Unfortunately, there were a couple times where the ball got deflected when they converged on him. It’s uncharacteristic for Derrick to have four turnovers, but when the ball hits his hands good things generally happen.”
Kobe Webster and CJ. Wilcher combined for 23 points on 9-of-17 shooting (4-of-8 from 3) off the bench, but the Huskers shot just 45% from the field, 30.4% from 3 and 6-of-11 from the foul line.
Bryce McGowens got off to a great start but finished with 13 points on 5-of-16 shooting, missing his last six 3-point attempts after opening the game with one from the corner. He had four assists but also turned the ball over five times. Alonzo Verge Jr. shot just 2-of-10 from the field for five points and dished out five assists.
Nebraska forced 19 Michigan State turnovers and converted them into 20 points on the other end, but the Huskers also gave the ball away 15 times leading to 16 points for the Spartans. The Spartans had a nine-point edge in second-chance points, converting 11 offensive rebounds into 16 points.
“Our turnovers led to pick-sixes, we had a couple opportunities to foul them when we had fouls to give and we didn’t, it didn’t get it executed,” Hoiberg said. “We scored more off turnovers, we scored more in the paint. It’s two games in a row now against physical teams where we have outscored in the paint and on the break. This a team that we talked a lot about the transition,. Second-chance points they got us, but they got 11; for us that’s not bad.”
The Cornhuskers hit their first seven shots from the field including two triples and a three-point play to build a 17-12 lead early. However, turnovers and missed box-outs allowed the Spartans to keep pace and Michigan State used an 8-0 run to pull ahead when the Huskers finally started to miss.
Nebraska used a 7-2 run including a deep Webster 3 to take the lead, then the Spartans answered with their own 7-0 run. Michigan State held onto the lead until a 6-0 run featuring two layups off the bounce and an emphatic chase-down block from Walker put the Huskers ahead 32-31.
Michigan State closed the half on a 7-2 run to take a 38-34 lead at the break. After the 7-for-7 start, Nebraska shot 33.3% the rest of the way. Michigan State shot 54.8% from the field in the first half. Both teams hit three 3s and one free throw, and Nebraska held a slight 20-18 edge in paint points. The big difference was Michigan State converting five offensive rebounds into 10 second-chance points. The Huskers had one follow-up bucket.
Walker matched Brown with 10 points in the first half. McGowens and Christie had nine points apiece.
After the Huskers had pulled within two, Michigan State used back-to-back 3s — one after an offensive rebound and another in transition — to push the lead to eight. The Spartans maintained at least a five-point advantage the rest of the way, extending the lead to 10 on a Brown dunk, then to 11 on a Christie bucket in the paint.
Nebraska made a dent in the deficit with a 5-0 run spanning two-and-a-half minutes, but the Spartans essentially put the game away with a 10-2 run that stretched the lead to 14 with 4:19 to play. Neither team scored for more than two minutes until a layup by AJ Hoggard ended the drought and pushed the lead to 16 with less than two minutes to play.
“We missed the two layups at the rim, they hit, I think, back-to-back 3s for them,” Hoiberg said. “It was still a six-point game with seven minutes left and the ball stopped going in the hoop. We had a couple that went in and out, hit every part of the rim, and just unfortunately didn’t fall and they took advantage on the other end.”
The Huskers scored eight points in 35 seconds (a 3 from Webster then a dunk and a 3 from Wilcher) to cut the deficit to 10, but that’s as close as the Huskers got.
The Cornhuskers shot 41.4% from the field in the second half after that late scoring burst, but they were in the mid-30s most of the half and shot just 5-of-10 at the foul line.
The Huskers will remain on the road and continue heading east this week still in search of their first Big Ten win. Nebraska will take on Rutgers in Piscataway on Saturday afternoon at 1 p.m. CT.
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.