The overriding theme of Fred Hoiberg’s tenure in Lincoln has been Nebraska struggling to fight through adversity. In Sunday’s regular season finale, the Huskers faced as much adversity as they’ve seen in Hoiberg’s three season.
This time, however, they fought through it and secured a road win over a top-10 team.
Nebraska went to Madison on Sunday and took down No. 10 Wisconsin 74-73 despite playing without leading scorer Bryce McGowens and despite losing Trey McGowens to an ejection early in the second half.
After leading for most of the first half, the Huskers fell behind by 10 midway through the second. However, they closed the game on a 12-2 run, holding Wisconsin without a field goal for the final 5:47, to win their third game in a row.
Nebraska (10-21, 4-16 Big Ten) is the first 20-loss team in at least 50 years (and possibly ever) to beat back-to-back top-25 teams on the road. The win was the Huskers’ first against a top-10 team since beating Wisconsin on No Sit Sunday in 2014.
Alonzo Verge Jr. led all scorers with 26 points on 10-of-16 from the field (1-of-3 from 3) and 5-of-6 from the foul line while dishing out six assists and corralling five boards and two steals.
Derrick Walker added 15 points on 7-of-11 shooting and seven rebounds while C.J. Wilcher, starting in place of an injured Bryce McGowens, chipped in 10 points on 4-of-7 shooting (2-of-5 from 3). During his pre-game radio interview, Hoiberg said McGowens injured his wrist during a hard fall in Nebraska’s win at Ohio State.
“I really thought, for the most part on the offensive end, we made solid decisions and got the ball in Alonzo’s hands,” Hoiberg said after the game on the Huskers Radio Network. “We had that late drop off a lot in the first half. They adjusted and we had a couple turnovers with that, but then Alonzo adjusted and started finishing at the at the rim. C.J. was awesome in Bryce’s absence, playing almost 37 minutes. Derrick got us off to a great start in that first half, really playing through him at the elbow and letting him go to work. Everybody that stepped on the floor, that’s the fun thing about this thing right now is everybody that’s on the floor is making a positive contribution.”
Nebraska shot 53.7% from the field — the team’s fourth straight game shooting better than 49% — despite shooting just 5-of-18 from deep. The Huskers held Wisconsin (24-6, 15-5) to 40% from the field including 5-of-23 from 3-point range.
Nebraska forced the Badgers into turnovers on four of their first six possessions and the Huskers took advantage with an 8-0 run for a 10-3 lead early.
The Cornhuskers played from ahead the rest of the half. Keisei Tominaga, who had fallen out of the rotation recently but heard his number called with Bryce McGowens in street clothes, checked in and provided a spark for the Huskers. He drew a foul on a 3-pointer and hit all three free throws then converted a tough layup.
The Huskers pushed their lead to 12 a couple of times as Nebraska continued to play well and get contributions from up and down the lineup.
“I thought early on or defensive energy was phenomenal and got us out to a nice lead,” Hoiberg said “Especially on senior night, we knew they would come out emotional and have a lot to play for, obviously, with the overall No. 1 seed and winning the league outright.”
After playing a clean first 15 minutes, however, Nebraska turned it over twice in 22 seconds, giving the Badgers life. They cut the deficit down to five, then down to two a couple of times. However, with Verge and Trey McGowens both on the bench with two fouls, the Huskers got a runner in the paint from Wilcher to take a 40-36 lead into halftime.
Nebraska shot 56.7% from the field in the first half despite going 1-for-9 from 3. Walker led all scorers with 12 points on 6-of-9 shooting while Verge dished out four assists to go with his eight points on 4-of-6 shooting.
Wisconsin star Johnny Davis ht his first three shots for seven quick points but played just nine minutes after picking up two fouls. Wisconsin 48.4% including 3-of-10 from 3.
Things quickly spiraled out of control in the second half, however. Verge picked up his third foul 17 seconds into the half, setting the tone for the next four minutes. The Husker point guard remained in the game and converted a three-point play, then set up Walker for a bunny to make it 45-37 65 seconds into the half.
However, Wisconsin scored the next four points to cut the lead in half, then Johnny Davis slid over in help and blocked a shot from Verge, securing the ball and taking it the other way. Trey McGowens sprinted back and appeared to trip up Davis from behind, which the official called after a brief delay, but both players continued toward the basket. Davis elevated for the shot and McGowens leapt after him, winding up to try to block the shot, but he dropped the arm instead of swinging and caught Davis in the head.
McGowens landed on Davis, and Davis stayed down for a bit before limping back to the locker room. He did not return to the game. The officials reviewed the play and assessed a flagrant two on McGowens which carries an ejection.
In the ensuing minutes, one official overruled another to change a charge into a blocking foul on Walker, allowing Wisconsin to tie the game. Then a dubious jump-ball call turned the ball back over to Wisconsin and Brad Davison gave the Badgers their first lead since 3-2. Verge tied the game up with a strong take, but he received a technical after appearing to look back at an official on his way up the court, his fourth foul.
“We talked at halftime about the biggest thing was going to be coming out and controlling our emotions and not reacting,” Hoiberg said. “Unfortunately, we had some things happen. Listen, I’m never going to be upset with passion; our guys are playing with so much right now.”
Davison hit both free throws, then Chris Vogt drew a foul on the ensuing play to trigger the under-16 timeout. The Huskers committed nine fouls in the first 4:17 of the second half to just one for Wisconsin.
The Badgers’ run reached 25-7 as they pulled ahead 62-52 with just over 12 minutes to play.
Hoiberg went back to Verge with his four fouls a minute later, and on his first possession he found Wilcher for a 3 to end a three-and-a-half-minute scoring drought. The Huskers traded buckets and stops for the next few minutes until the Huskers made their run with five to play.
Wisconsin missed its last nine shots from the field as the Huskers scored 12 unanswered to take the lead. Verge scored the last nine including a go-ahead 3-pointer, before committing his fifth foul with 19.8 to play and Nebraska leading by three.
Verge’s foul sent Wisconsin freshman Chucky Hepburn to the foul line for three shots, but he only hit two of them. The Badgers put Wilcher at the line for the bonus and he missed the front end, but Hepburn — who banked in a game-winning 3 against Purdue on Tuesday — misfired on an open look from the wing and the Huskers held on for the win.
“Down nine with about five minutes to go and just finding a way,” Hoiberg said. “Alonzo, we made the decision to put him back in under the 12-minute media timeout — we just felt like we had to or that thing was going to slip away — and he just made play after play after play all game long, especially with Bryce out of the lineup. Trey goes out, obviously, with the flagrant, and we just found a way to make enough good decisions out there and finally got some rebounds there at the end. We really played a lot of zone; we felt like we needed to shorten the game and try to keep our guys out of foul trouble. I think we went about nine minutes without committing a foul, after getting them in the bonus in about four minutes. So I’m just really proud of our guys for going out there and finding a way.”
Nebraska shot 50% from the field in the second half including 4-of-9 from 3. The Huskers held the Badgers to 31% shooting (2-of-13 from 3) with nearly half of their points coming at the foul line (17-of-20 shooting). Verge put the team on his back despite the foul trouble with 18 points in the second half.
After the game, hoiberg provided an update on Bryce McGowens.
“That fall was scary that he took the other night and I we all feel fortunate that wasn’t worse,” Hoiberg said. “We just need to get him ready here for the Big Ten tournament. We’re going to need him if we if we want to make some noise … He’s progressively getting better. He was able to do limited things in practice, but he doesn’t have a lot of flexion in that wrist right now. He’s going to get treatment around the clock. We’ve got two days now and like I said, the good news is it’s gotten better each each day, so hopefully that continues in a positive direction when we get back on the floor on Wednesday.”
Nebraska will ride a three-game road winning streak into Indianapolis for next week’s Big Ten Tournament.
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.