There wasn’t anything pretty about it, but Nebraska got a home win it needed over a struggling Wisconsin team behind a strong defensive effort and a boost from the big man Jordy Tshimanga.
After winning 12 games all of last season, the Huskers (12-6, 3-2) have hit that mark with 13 games remaining in the regular season. Even so, Coach Tim Miles wasn’t completely happy with the performance.
“We need to tighten up,” Miles said. “First of all, give credit to Wisconsin. Greg [Gard] is doing a great job. I just told him it’s like playing Jim Molinari’s teams. They just do a great job of making it difficult to score. You can’t extend on the lead and any mistake, they’re going to take advantage of and you can see that on points off turnovers … I don’t think our mentality is where it needed to be either and you can see it in the amount of assists and the poor shooting percentage from three and then just some of the guys and they’re performances.“
The Huskers made just two 3-pointers all night on 14 attempts but held the Badgers (9-9, 2-3) to 5-of-19 shooting from deep — including two in the closing seconds to make the score closer than it needed to be. Wisconsin scored 23 points off Nebraska's 13 turnovers and the Huskers finished with a season-low eight assists.
The Huskers have had their struggles at the free-throw line this season, but the charity stripe proved to be the difference in the game as Nebraska shot 21-of-28 compared to just 4-of-10 by Wisconsin.
James Palmer Jr. led the way with 19 points on 5-of-11 from the field and 8-of-9 from the foul line with five rebounds and two blocks. Isaac Copeland added 12 points on 5-of-10 from the field and 2-of-3 from the line with six rebounds and three blocks.
After playing a season-low 6 minutes in Saturday’s loss at Purdue, Tshimanga responded with a season-high nine points on 3-of-5 from the field and 3-of-4 from the line with six rebounds in 18 minutes before fouling out. Seven of those points and five of those rebounds came in the second half.
“[Coach Miles] told me just stick with it and my teammates here have been great with me, been patient, and I’ve just been sticking with it,” Tshimanga said. “Getting in the gym, getting extra reps and just working.”
The starting backcourt of Glynn Watson Jr. and Evan Taylor combined to shoot 0-of-7 from the field and didn’t score until the very end when Wisconsin sent them to the free-throw line to extend the game. Watson shot 3-of-4 and Taylor split a pair for a combined four points.
The teams traded blows early but Palmer gave the Huskers a spark with a terrific sequence of plays. The junior guard drove and found Copeland for a layup, then blocked a layup attempt by a Badger and secured possession before pushing it up the floor, getting in the paint and kicking it out to Anton Gill for 3, giving Nebraska a 12-8 lead.
After a couple of buckets by both teams, Nebraska picked it up on defense and held Wisconsin scoreless for nearly five minutes, forcing four missed shots and three turnovers as the Huskers built a 24-14 lead with an 8-0 run.
However, rather than breaking the game open, the Huskers fell apart, allowing a 7-0 run thanks to sloppy play and bad decisions.
Isaiah Roby scored inside with a tough bucket in the post to snap the run but Wisconsin added a free throw to make the score 26-22 Nebraska at the half.
The Huskers held all-Big Ten center Ethan Happ to four points on 2-of-5 shooting with one assist and two turnovers thanks in large part thanks to an aggressive double-teaming scheme.
Nebraska regrouped at halftime and opened the second half with a methodical 15-6 run, taking its biggest lead of the game on a three-point play by Palmer. The Huskers suddenly went cold, however, scoring just once on their next seven possessions as a 10-2 run brought Wisconsin within five midway through the half.
Needing a bucket, Isaiah Roby grabbed a board and pushed it up the floor himself before kicking out to Gill in the corner for a 3. After the pass, Roby got tripped up by a Wisconsin defender and hit the ground. Gill missed, but the ball bounced right into Roby’s hands on the floor and he passed it right back out to Gill for another shot, and the senior guard made the most of his second chance and buried it.
Wisconsin hit a pair of free-throws but Tshimanga answered with a jump-hook and Wisconsin coach Greg Gard received a technical foul after arguing a no-call. Freshman guard Thomas Allen, who scored eight points off the bench, knocked down both free throws to put the Huskers up 10.
Then Happ came alive, willing the Badgers back into the game with a personal 7-1 run that cut the deficit to four with less than 5 minutes to go.
Nebraska stretched it back to tie with free throws and a bucket by Palmer — Nebraska’s only field goal in the final 7:50 — but Happ scored two more times to cut it back to five with 51 seconds to play.
Nebraska shot 7-of-10 from the foul line in the final minute to hold on to win despite the late Wisconsin 3s. Thirteen of Nebraska’s final 15 points came via the free-throw line.
“I think that’s what we wanted to do in the second half since they’re a slow-paced team, so we wanted to try to do something since it wasn’t a high-paced game. We wanted to try to get to the free-throw line. I think we did a good job of that.”
After scoring just four points in the first half, Happ finished with a game-high 19 points on 9-of-15 shooting and 11 rebounds.
“First half we did a good job [on Happ],” Copeland said. “Second half, he got going a little bit. When you play with a team where they go through one person almost every play, he’s going to get his baskets. So our job is to make it as tough as we can and win the game, so we did that.”
Sophomore guard Brevin Pritzl (10 points on 4-of-8 shooting) was the only other Badger to finish with more points than shot attempts.
Despite the win, the mood in the post-game press conference was far from celebratory for the players as well after the way the Huskers finished the game.
“We had some struggles at the end and we just have to finish better than that,” Palmer said.
The Huskers will hit the road once again for a trip to State College to take on the Penn State Nittany Lions (12-6, 2-3) on Friday at 6 p.m. The game will be televised on BTN.
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.