A dominant first half gave No. 24 Nebraska enough of a cushion to cruise through the second half en route to a 73-49 win over Western Illinois on Saturday afternoon at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
The Huskers struggled to knock down shots from the perimeter once again, finishing 4-of-20 from deep, but they dominated the Leathernecks inside and doubled them up in points in the paint 44-22.
Glynn Watson Jr. recorded a season-high 20 points to lead all players, shooting 8-of-10 from the field and 2-of-3 from deep. He added a career-high-tying nine rebounds, dished out three assists and grabbed three steals as well. As a team, Nebraska dominated the glass 47-33 after losing that battle in its previous two games.
“Those guys [the bigs] box out and things like that and I’m the guy that’s got to come clean up when those guys box out,” Watson said. “Coach Miles told us we all need to come rebound today and play our defense, so that’s what I tried to do.”
James Palmer Jr. added 19 points but shot just 7-of-18 from the field including 0-5 from downtown. Junior forward Isaiah Roby pitched in nine points and seven rebounds but shot 4-of-10 from the field.
The Huskers held Western Illinois to 30.6 percent shooting including 30.4 percent from deep and the Leathernecks attempted just five free throws. Leading scorer Corey Webster, who was averaging 19 points heading into the game, finished with three points on 1-of-9 shooting with three turnovers before fouling out in 24 minutes. Nebraska forced 14 turnovers and converted them into 19 points.
“I thought [our defensive intensity] was good for a while, but then I thought it fell off,” Miles said. “You don’t build a 33-point lead on anybody unless you’re locking them up. At a time, we had held them to just a couple 3-pointers, we rebounded pretty well, and so I liked where we were defensively. I thought we did a lot of things right for a long time.”
Nebraska went inside early and often to Roby as he got a touch on four of Nebraska’s first five possessions. The results were a hook, a dunk, a missed jumper and a turnover.
“The coaches did a good job early of putting me in easy spots, getting the ball on the block and getting it in the post,” Roby said. “That’s where I can hurt teams, so that was really good.”
A couple of offensive boards, a couple of Nebraska giveaways and a 3-pointer on the first possession allowed the Leathernecks to jump out to a 9-4 lead.
The Huskers tightened things up from there defensively, holding Western Illinois scoreless for 7:43 and putting together a 13-0 run. The Huskers went small with Nana Akenten checking in at the four in a four-guard lineup and the sophomore brought a spark, grabbing two offensive boards and converting them into three points (drew a foul and split the free throws on one and put the second in the basket).
Western Illinois scored on back-to-back possessions, then the Huskers started a new run that would last almost to halftime. Western Illinois finally scored on a 3-pointer with 17 seconds left in the half, snapping a 19-0 Nebraska run that spanned 6:37.
The Huskers held Western Illinois to 7-of-29 shooting with nine turnovers in the first 20 minutes. Leading scorer Kobe Webster was held to 1-of-7 shooting as the 3-pointer right before half was his only bucket.
Palmer scored 10 straight Nebraska points during that second big run and finished with 12 in the first half. Watson added 11 points on 4-of-6 shooting and grabbed six boards. Eight of the nine Huskers that saw the floor in the first half found the scoring column. Nebraska scored 30 points in the paint, 13 off turnovers and 10 in transition.
Coming off the loss to Texas Tech that included just six assists and 52 points for the Huskers, Miles said ball movement was a big key for the Huskers heading into Saturday.
“In the first half, we were 12-for-19 from the field after three passes, and that’s good basketball,” Miles said. “Now we didn’t continue it in the second half when we got the big lead and that’s where we can’t let our guard down because whether you’ve got a big lead or you’re behind like we were against Texas Tech, if those same habits come out — quick, early outside shots — it makes it really hard on your defense.”
Nebraska opened the second half with a 10-0 run to build its lead up to 33 points but soon after the Huskers fell into an offensive rut and struggled to get out of it. Western Illinois put together a 14-2 run while holding the Huskers to 1-of-12 shooting to pull within 21 with less than 12 to play.
Part of Nebraska’s struggles had to do with the zone defense the Leathernecks thew at the Huskers in the second half.
“We kind of fell into the trap of a zone, just taking open 3s,” Roby said. “We had a lot of good shots but they just weren’t falling. Once we missed long 3s, they were going out on fast breaks and scoring. That’s just something we have to fix in the future, just getting to the middle of the zone, breaking the zone down before we shoot those 3s.”
Nebraska got back-to-back buckets to push it back to 25 but the Leathernecks responded with seven straight to get the Nebraska lead under 20 for the first time since the 1:31 mark of the first half at 58-40.
That was as close as the Leathernecks would get as the teams mostly traded buckets the rest of the way and the Huskers scored the last five points of the game (a 3 by Akenten and a layup by Thomas Allen Jr.) to finish off the 24-point victory.
Next up for the Huskers is a trip to Clemson to take on the 16th-ranked Tigers in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Monday. Tipoff for Nebraska’s first true road game is set for 6 p.m. on ESPN2.
“It’s our first away game,” Roby said. “Guys like the freshmen and even Nana, this is the first away game they’ve played in. It’s a statement game for us. It’s one we’ve been looking forward to for awhile though.”