Missed opportunities cost Nebraska in a 72-66 loss to Illinois in Champaign on Sunday afternoon, and its impact could be far-reaching as well.
The Illini (13-15, 3-12) were at the bottom of the Big Ten standings entering Sunday’s game and sat at 192 in the RPI. Nebraska’s strongest argument for earning an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament was it’s impressive overall record (20-9) and it’s success in a top-six league (11-5). A loss to a bad Illinois team puts a big blemish on that résumé and makes it all the more important that Nebraska picks up a couple of good wins down the stretch and in the Big Ten Tournament.
The good news for the Huskers is that Michigan knocked off Ohio State earlier in the day on Sunday, making Nebraska’s 20-point win over the Wolverines all the more impressive. The hunt for the postseason isn’t over, but Nebraska has a lot more work to do now than it did on Sunday morning.
Nebraska played very little defense in the first half, then fell apart on offense in the second half when the Huskers had a chance to create some separation. After all that, though, it was still anyone’s game heading into the final minutes. One team made plays, the other didn’t.
Nebraska made four trips to the free-throw line in the final seven minutes and split all four of them. The Huskers shot 10-of-18 from the charity stripe overall.
Trailing by three inside of two minutes, Nebraska got a gift as freshman Mark Smith fired up a questionable 3-point attempt that sailed over the rim and gave possession back to Nebraska, but on the ensuing fast break Glynn Watson Jr., who was 1-of-8 from the field at that point, pulled up for a leaning 3-point attempt with 1:12 on the clock. The shot never had a chance and Illinois secured the rebound.
The Illini gave Nebraska another chance, however, as Leron Black missed the front end of the bonus to keep the lead at three. Nebraska got the ball to its star in James Palmer Jr., but Palmer drove into traffic and forced up a shot that didn’t fall. Junior Isaac Copeland grabbed the carom but his point-blank put-back attempt rimmed out and that rebound bounced out of bounds off Nebraska with 59 seconds to play.
Nebraska played out the following possession and Trent Frazier missed a 3, but Nebraska failed to secure the rebound and it bounced out of bounds off Watson’s hand with 31 seconds left. The Huskers had to foul after that and Frazier split a pair to stretch it to four with 25 seconds left. Palmer took it the length of the floor for a quick layup to cut it to two, and it looked like Nebraska had a chance to trap in the backcourt, but Evan Taylor fouled immediately instead.
This time, Frazier hit both to stretch it back to four and Copeland missed a 3 on the other end, for all intents and purposes sealing the game.
The Huskers shot 43.4 percent from the field for the game and got out-rebounded 11-5 on the offensive glass and out-scored 9-0 in second chance points. Nebraska allowed Illinois junior forward Leron Black to go off for a career-high 28 points on 11-of-18 shooting.
Copeland led the Huskers with 17 points on 5-of-11 shooting, Isaiah Roby recorded his third straight double-double with 13 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks and Evan Taylor and Jordy Tshimanga combined for 11 points on 4-of-4 from the field, but the backcourt of Palmer, Watson and Anton Gill totaled 24 points on 9-of-31 shooting.
Copeland opened the scoring with a 3-pointer, but Nebraska went on to miss its next six shots while the Illini converted five straight to take an 11-3 lead. Roby, a native of Dixon, Illinois, took over with a personal 7-2 run to get the Huskers back into the game.
Trent Frazier hit a circus shot late in the clock to put the Illini up 16-10, but Nebraska countered with another 7-2 run including three-point plays by Palmer and Evan Taylor. Illinois stretched the lead back to four a couple of times but Nebraska pulled within one again after Roby’s second 3 of the game.
Nebraska went ice cold over the next three minutes as Illinois used a 10-0 run to take its biggest lead of the game at 33-22. Copeland sparked a 9-2 run with his second triple to get Nebraska back within four, but Illinois answered with two 3s of their own to stretch it back to 10. The teams traded buckets before Gill knocked down a trey with less than 30 seconds to go and Kipper Nichols’ response from deep missed, giving the Illini a 43-36 lead at halftime.
Illinois shot 62.1 percent from the field in the first half as Black and Nichols combined for 29 points on 12-of-15 from the field and 5-of-6 from deep. For the Huskers, Roby went a perfect 5-for-5 from the field for 13 points in the first 20 minutes, setting a new career-high with three 3-pointers.
Nebraska used an 11-2 run early in the second half to pull ahead 52-47, but both teams forgot how to score after that. Black snapped a scoring drought for the Illini that lasted nearly five-and-a-half minutes with a three-point play. Nebraska scoring drought continued, however, and Smith put Illinois back up by one with a 3-pointer.
Tshimanga dropped in a jump-hook to break Nebraska’s cold spell, which lasted more than six minutes, but Frazier answered with another 3. Tshimanga converted a three-point play to take back the lead.
Neither team managed to create any separation at all as the rest of the game was played within three points until Frazier’s free-throw pushed it to four with 25 seconds left.
After a huge first half, Roby went scoreless in the second half, dealing with foul trouble and missing his only two shot attempts.
Copeland surpassed 1,000 career points with a bucket late in the first half.
The Huskers will return to Lincoln for a two-game home stand to close out the regular season. Next up for Nebraska is a meeting with Indiana (16-12, 9-7) on Tuesday at 8 p.m.