Against the No. 13 team in the country, a team that has dominated its conference for the last decade-plus, Nebraska was one play short.
The Huskers, now 7-5 on the season after back-to-back losses, came up on the short end of a 73-72 final score against a Kansas team that was their statistical equal on an electric Saturday night inside Pinnacle Bank Arena. One shot, one point.
Hours before the game began, the downtown Lincoln area was bursting with life as fans were getting ready for not just the Kansas showdown, but a potential national championship from Husker volleyball. Just before tipoff, the atmosphere inside the Huskers’ hoops home was rocking off its hinges when Nebraska paused its usual pregame introductions to introduce new head football coach Scott Frost. The game against the old Big 12 foes opened with a Kansas turnover and a Nebraska three and things were off and running.
The Huskers outshot the Jayhawks, but not by much – 49 percent to 45. The 3-point percentages were similar (36 percent for Nebraska, 32 for Kansas), the turnover numbers were similar (14 to 12), the free throw attempts were dead even at eight, the rebounds were dead even at 33, but Nebraska came up short in the only number that mattered.
“It’s deadlocked and they make one more play than we do,” head coach Tim Miles said. “That hurts.”
The game-winning bucket came by way of a triple from senior guard Svi Mykhailiuk with 21 seconds remaining and the Jayhawks down two. Mykhailiuk was 1-of-6 from beyond the arc leading up to the shot, and Kansas was 2-of-12 in the second half.
What’s more, the final play, a high ball screen from Udoka Azubuike to free guard Devonte’ Graham, wasn’t designed for the 6-foot-8 sharpshooter, but Graham saw his man leave the corner to bump Azubuike on the roll to the basket and delivered the pass.
“Cash,” Graham thought as Mykhailiuk let the ball go.
One play short. Kansas converted on its final possession. The Huskers, after a corner-three miss from Anton Gill and a rejected desperation heave from James Palmer Jr., didn’t. But the lead-up to the closing minutes had as big an impact on the game as the final two plays. Mykhailiuk’s man, forward Isaac Copeland, had to help off on Azubuike’s roll to the cup because the 7-foot sophomore had bullied and bruised the Huskers inside all night long.
“When I saw it developing, I knew what they were going to do,” Miles said. “It kind of puts Copeland on an island because you’ve got Azubuike coming at you and you know that lob could be there.”
Twenty-six points and 10 rebounds on 13-of-17 shooting, Azubuike enjoyed a career night by playing Nebraska starting center Jordy Tshimanga off the floor – he played 10 ineffective minutes with four fouls – and then abusing the smaller Isaiah Roby in the post. Kansas’ leading scorer, guard Lagerald Vick, had only four points on the night, but the Jayhawks didn’t need him. The big man from Delta, Nigeria, kept Kansas going with traditional post-ups, pick-and-rolls and lobs on one end, and a deterring presence inside on the other.
“[Azubuike] played great, that was the best game [he]’s played since he’s been here,” Kansas head coach Bill Self said after the game. “He hasn’t played to his size at all here of late but he did today.”
Nebraska enjoyed a career night too, from freshman guard Thomas Allen, who spurned Kansas for Nebraska in choosing colleges. Allen finished with a career-high 13 points which, while they don’t seem like much, gave the Huskers a shot in the first half when starter Glynn Watson Jr. was limited by fouls.
“I was so proud of him,” Miles said. But there was no place for moral victories, no solace in knowing they were so close. Allen, clearly upset afterwards, said “I just wanted to win the game. That’s pretty much it, I just wanted to win the game.”
Palmer took some contact on his final shot – the one that Azubuike blocked, chased down and then threw into the frontcourt to erase any chance Nebraska had – but not enough to warrant any help from the officials.
“I don’t expect them to call that that late in the game,” he said.
After his players left the podium and Miles started to dissect what went wrong and share what he told the team in the locker room, he held back tears.
“We were all in it together,” Miles said. “I just said, 'listen guys, I'm proud of you. They just made one more play than we did. That's the way I see it. That's the way I look at it. Don't let this game beat us twice. We got to come to work Monday and be ready to roll.'"
He praised the atmosphere Husker fans created, gave a shout out to the volleyball squad and talked about Frost’s grand entrance, but you could tell this one ate at him.
“I love our guys,” he said as he shook his head back and forth. “I thought they played a heck of a game.”
Nebraska will have three “gimmes” over the next two weeks. UTSA on Wednesday, followed by Delaware State on Friday and Stetson a week after that. All will be played at home. Three victories would go a long way towards boosting a team that poured everything it had into Saturday night. Miles wants to see improvement on offense and improvement inside.
He didn’t like the rhythm on the Huskers’ final possession or the fact they got beat up inside the paint. Those are things they can work on before Big Ten play resumes on Jan. 2. For now, they’ll have a sour taste in their mouths and a “we let that one slip away” feeling in their heads, but Miles ended on a promising note, saying they can’t let this one continue to beat them.
“We’ll get better,” he said. “Just a tough night.”
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.