Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Huskers Head to Madison to Close out Regular Season

March 05, 2022

Over the past three games, Nebraska has averaged 83 points on 51.8% shooting including 49.2% from three. Its taken nearly the entire season, but things have finally started to click offensively for the Huskers, and with a couple of strong defensive outings as well they’ve managed to win two in a row on the road.

“I think it’s important, obviously, to finish out the season as well as we can,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said. “I’m really proud of our guys for continuing to go out there and battle through a difficult season … It’s just been fun to see our guys go out and continue to play and play their best basketball of the season. And you see, when you get a little confidence, how much better you perform on the basketball court on both ends. And, we’ve just got to keep going out there and keep fighting.”

A big part of the team’s turnaround is the guy who sat next to Hoiberg on Saturday afternoon, Trey McGowens. It took him a while to get back up to speed after returning from the broken foot that sidelined him for two months, but over his past four games McGowens has scored 36 points on 14-of-22 shooting including 5-of-8 from 3 and 3-of-4 from the free-throw line, and he’s nabbed 10 steals as well.

“I can’t tell you how much it means to have this guy back on the floor full-time,” Hoiberg said. “With his timing back and with his conditioning back, you see how much he means to our team. He took five shots the other night and you could argue he was the player of the game for us with everything that he provides, from defense, from leadership, to making the right play. He’s just doing everything for our team right now. When you look back at our season, you lose a guy that’s this important in the third game of the season, to get him back on the floor and you see, certainly, what we’re capable of doing now with as important a guy as we have on our roster.”

McGowens shared how difficult it was to readjust to the speed of the game after he made his return. Everything was moving so fast and he had a tough time making reads. He has 12 games under his belt now, though, and everything’s starting to slow down for him.

“[I’m] staying ready and just trying to play to my strengths,” McGowens said. “The athleticism is not going to be there probably all the way, so just finding other ways to try to work on my game. Just not worried about scoring or doing things like that as well, just focusing on the defensive end and then whenever I get an opportunity to take a shot, just take advantage of it.”

Hoiberg recalled how difficult it was for him after returning from a long-term injury, and shared more about McGowens’ rehab and the process he took to get back on the court. Most of his workouts during his rehab were conducted in a pool, on a bike or on an anti-gravity treadmill to keep the pressure off his foot while it healed. The 6-foot-4 guard had two-and-a-half practices after getting cleared to play before he got thrown into the fire against Indiana on Jan. 17, and although it took some time for the offense to come around, he made an immediate impact on defense.

As he’s continued to settle in, it’s had an impact and the players around him as well. Alonzo Verge Jr. has been more efficient as of late, but he’s picked it up even more in the past three, averaging 15.3 points on 45% shooting, 7.7 assists and just 2.0 turnovers. Bryce McGowens stacked two of his best performances of the season back-to-back in the wins over Penn State and Ohio State, totaling 51 points on 57.1% shooting (40% from 3) and 87% from the foul line. C.J. Wilcher, Lat Mayen and Kobe Webster have all knocked down shots from the perimeter at a higher rate as well.

“When you get a guy Trey’s importance back on the floor, Alonzo’s making simple plays, the best he’s done all year,” Hoiberg said. “You look at his numbers the last seven games, you’ll put those up against any point guard in the country. I love the talent on our roster, there’s no thought about it, and you add an important piece back to your cog, you see the difference that we’re playing with. Consistency I would say is the biggest thing that I’ve seen. We’ve had stretches where we’ve done it but in this league, if you’re not playing the full 40 you’re not going to get over the hump.”

The Huskers will get one more opportunity to extend the winning streak to three before heading off to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Tournament next week. Nebraska will close out the regular season at No. 10 Wisconsin on Sunday afternoon after the Badgers clinched a share of the Big Ten title on Tuesday. A win over the Huskers would give the Badgers the regular season crown outright. 

“We know we’re in for a tough battle tomorrow with what is at stake for Wisconsin, with senior night,” Hoiberg said. “I know it’s going to be very emotional in that building, it’s going to be very loud in that building, and they’re fighting for the overall No. 1 seed and an outright championship in the Big Ten. I admire what that team has done, they’ve won so many close games over the course of the season. And when you look back on it at the end of the year, the teams that find a way to get over the hump and win those close ones are the ones on top right now.”

Wisconsin (24-5, 15-4 Big Ten) beat the Huskers in Lincoln 73-65 back on Jan. 27, Trey McGowens’ second game back in the lineup. Wisconsin is ranked 26th overall on KenPom — 29th in adjusted defensive efficiency and 42 on offense. McGowens pointed to their experience and togetherness and how all of the Badgers excel in their roles as things that make Wisconsin tough.

“I think the biggest thing with Wisconsin is you can’t speed them up,” Hoiberg said. “That’s one of the most impressive things I’ve seen is when teams go on runs in loud buildings, you can see things getting crazy in there, and they just never get sped up. To Trey’s point, you’ve got a guy in Brad Davison that came back first COVID year, you’ve got a guy in Johnny Davis that you could argue is not only the Big Ten Player of the Year but one of the top candidates for National Player of the Year and certainly one of the most improved guys. He’s been unbelievable this year. Chucky [Hepburn] plays way beyond his years as a freshman and is just doing a great job for them. And then their bigs, with [Tyler] Wahl, he’s a very tough cover because of the ability to post and ability to take it off the dribble, and then their bigs shoot it and it just puts you in a tough position.”

Davis, a 6-foot-5 shooting guard, is averaging 20.3 points and 8.3 rebounds. Davison, the super senior, 12 putting up 14.0 points per game while shooting 34.8% from deep. Wahl, who returned from an ankle injury to face the Huskers in Lincoln but wasn’t at full strength, is providing interior scoring at 11.5 points per game and is coming off a 19-point outing against Purdue. 

The Huskers did a good job limiting Davis in their first meeting, but Davison got loose for five 3-pointers and 21 points while Hepburn, the Bellevue West product, and 7-foot sophomore Steven Crowl scored in double figures as well.

Tipoff on Sunday is set for 1 p.m. CT on Big Ten Network with Kevin Kugler and Robbie Hummel on the call.

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