Nebraska put together one of its best halves of the season, but it wasn’t enough as the Huskers went ice cold in the second half and bowed out of the Big Ten Tournament with a first-round loss to Penn State.
After pulling ahead by as much as 15 late in the first half, the Huskers fell to the Nittany Lions at Lucas Oil Stadium, 72-66. Penn State dominated the first few minutes of the second half to get back in the game and the Huskers couldn’t hold on down the stretch.
“It’s too bad, because I thought that first half was about as well as we’ve played on both ends, and held them to 23 points,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said. “That’s a team that’s playing very good basketball right now. We talked to our team about it’s the exact same scenario they were in last game where they were down 15 in the second half to Maryland and they just keep fighting and keep coming at you.
“Unfortunately they got the loose balls in the second half that we got in the first half and they out-rebound us 23 to 11 in the second half. Our guys, they battled all the way to the end, but it’s just so unfortunate that those first three minutes everything went their way.”
Nebraska hit six of its first 12 3-point attempts in the first 16 minutes. The Huskers shot 3-of-21 in the final 24 minutes, allowing Penn State to storm back into the game and take control down the stretch.
Trey McGowens led the Huskers with 13 points on 4-of-8 from the field and 4-of-5 from the foul line with four assists, four rebounds and three steals, but foul trouble limited him to just 23 minutes. The Huskers outscored the Nittany Lions by nine with him on the floor.
Nebraska’s two seniors were the other two double-digit scorers, though Kobe Webster shot 4-of-14 (2-of-9 from 3) for his 12 points and Thorir Thorbjarnarson had five turnovers to go with his 12 points (4-of-8 from deep). Derrick Walker did a bit of everything with eight points, seven rebounds and six assists.
Scoring was a struggle early with some ugly misses on both ends of the floor, but Nebraska found its rhythm seven minutes into the game and hit the Nittany Lions with a 12-0 run including a pair of 3s by Thorbjarnarson and one by McGowens.
Jamari Wheeler ended the run with a 3, but the Huskers tacked on four more points to push the lead to 13. The Huskers got a little sloppy with the ball for a stretch after a playing a pretty clean first 12 minutes and Penn State cut the lead down to eight, but the Huskers righted the ship and pushed the lead to 15 with a 7-0 run including another Thorbjarnarson three and two buckets by Derrick Walker.
Penn State shaved a few points off the deficit but McGowens hit a pair of free throws with less than four seconds to go to give Nebraska a 37-23 lead at halftime.
The 23 points are the fewest Nebraska has allowed in a half against a Big Ten opponent this season. The Nittany Lions shot 28.1% from the the field including 2-of-15 from 3.
After a hot start from 3, Nebraska cooled off down the stretch, missing its last five attempts. Even so, the Huskers hit six 3-pointers and recorded an assist on 10 of their 14 field goals. Eight of the nine Huskers who saw the court found the scoring column with five of them recording multiple buckets.
Whatever Jim Ferry said in Penn State’s locker room seemed to light a fire under the Nittany Lions as the opened the second half with a 10-0 run. Nebraska missed its first three shots and turned the ball over twice while Penn State took the lid off its rim with a couple of early 3s.
“That’s the thing we hit on was extending that lead in the first five, how important that would be as far as the outcome of the game,” Hoiberg said. “They came out and punched us in the mouth and scored 10 straight and got all the momentum. They cut a 14-point lead down to four, you call a timeout before the first media [timeout] and then you’re in a fight the rest of the way.”
Webster ended the cold spell with a fading jumper near the baseline, but Penn State continued to chip away at the lead. Sam Sessoms forced McGowens first turnover and drew a foul in the scramble for the loose ball with 13:18 to go. It was McGowens’ fourth foul and it put the Nittany Lions into the bonus.
Penn State tied it up at 47-all before Trevor Lakes answered with a 3. Penn State kept pushing, however, using a 6-0 run to take its first lead of the day. With McGowens on the bench, Dalano Banton stepped up and put his head down, getting to the rim for three times in four possessions including a three-point play that tied it at 57-all with six-and-a-half to play.
“Obviously that hurt us when Trey picked up his third right away, and then we put him back in and he got his fourth in about a minute,” Hoiberg said. “That hurt us, because I thought Trey was as good as anybody in that first half, but then Dalano picked up for him and we ran kind of some misdirection pick-and-roll plays to get him downhill and he finished well.”
McGowens returned at that point. Izaiah Brockington scored ascend-chance bucket to put Penn State back in front, and two minutes and 19 seconds of scoreless basketball followed before Walker tied it up again with a pair of free throws.
Penn State pulled ahead after that, however, as Nebraska missed four straight shots — all from the 3-point line and by three different players — and also missed the front end of the bonus during that stretch. Penn State scored seven straight before a McGowens three-point play cut the deficit to four with 69 seconds to go.
That’s as close as Nebraska got, though, as Penn State hit enough free throws down the stretch to hold on.
Nebraska shot 33.3% from the field and turned the ball over seven times in the second half. Penn State hit five 3s and shot 20-of-of-24 from the foul line.
“We missed a lot of good, open shots in the second half that we made in the first half,” Hoiberg said. “We missed a couple easy ones at the rim as well.”
Nebraska ends the year with seven wins and goes one-and-done in the Big Ten Tournament for the second straight season. The Huskers packed in 15 games in a 33-day span, and now the end of the season means a chance to get some rest.
“I’m tired, man,” Hoiberg said. “This has been a grind for everybody. Today, with this late game, going into the last couple days, it’s just been a really tough grind. It’s an NBA-type schedule, but these guys have a lot more responsibilities and don’t have a lot of the luxuries that those NBA players have. Most specifically, the academics. Our guys need to get caught up there. They’ve got some work to do because of all the travel and all the games that we’ve been playing.
“Obviously we’re still going to get in there, still going to work, but everybody’s going to have to take a couple days to recharge their batteries and really regain their sanity.”
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.