Thursday’s showdown at the Vault between Nebraska and No. 6 Michigan State was a knockdown, drag-out affair with neither side every truly getting into an offensive rhythm for an extended period.
However, the Spartans (16-2, 7-0 Big Ten) got going just enough to deliver a near knockout punch in the 11th round and Nebraska (13-5, 3-4) couldn’t quite rally to even things on the scorecard as Michigan State took home a 70-64 victory.
Pinnacle Bank Arena was full and rocking (paid attendance was 15,923 and empty seats were few and far between), but Nebraska never quite got going enough to make the crowd a true factor and extend its school-record-tying 20-game home winning streak.
“I can’t say enough about our fan base,” Coach Tim Miles said. “It’s been so good to us over the years, especially since we’ve been in Pinnacle Bank Arena. They’ve really made this a great place. I’m just disappointed we didn’t give them enough good offensive plays to enjoy it.”
The Huskers shot a season-low 32.8 percent from the field including 5-of-26 from deep. James Palmer Jr. was 5-of-21 from the field. Isaac Copeland Jr. was 5-of-12. Glynn Watson Jr. was 3-of-13. That big three combined for 45 points on 46 shot attempts.
“I wasn’t good with our shot selection overall,” Miles said. “I thought that Michigan State did a good job. They are long and athletic and strong. We couldn’t operate the way we needed to operate successfully to win the game. I thought defensively — when you look, there’s 1:13 left and they’re still at 60 you shouldn’t be at home, down 10 when they’re at 60. I wasn’t very pleased with our offense in any way, shape or form.”
Palmer led the way with 24 points thanks to an 11-of-11 performance at the free-throw line and he grabbed eight boards, leading the team in rebounds for the second straight game. Copeland was the only other Husker in double figures with 13 points and five rebounds. Isaiah Roby fouled out late with six points, seven rebounds and five turnovers.
Michigan State junior point guard Cassius Winston went off for a career-high 29 points, surpassing 1,000 points for his career in the process. Junior center Nick Ward added 15 points on 6-of-13 shooting, 10 rebounds and four turnovers. Michigan State shot 43.6 percent from the field including 6-of-20 from 3. The Spartans turned the ball over 15 times which led to 19 Nebraska points on the other end and points in the paint were even at 32-all.
“I thought we were solid [defensively],” Miles said. “I didn’t think we were great. I thought Winston got away from us and they got us in some transition, which is their M.O. We were OK on the glass, not great. But I thought we were solid, solid. They got some breaks — Cassius does bank one in [from 3] and Ward hits a shot-clock 3 — he’s attempted two in his career and they both go in. You have to credit them. Those guys we were helping off of were 3-for-8 from 3. [Kenny] Goins, I think, hit one and he was involved in that.”
Nebraska opened the game with a steal on Michigan State’s first possession then found Roby inside for a layup off a nice backdoor cut, but the Spartans got a wide open 3-point look on their next three possessions, hitting two of them.
After back-to-back buckets by the Huskers, Michigan State used a 6-0 run to pull ahead 12-7 thanks to six straight misses and a 2:46-scoring drought by Nebraska. Copeland ended the drought with a layup, then got a dunk on the next possession.
Nebraska picked up the defensive intensity and had the fans making noise with a great possession, but the ball found its way into center Nick Ward’s hands on the right wing with the shot clock winding down and the junior swished the shot — just the second 3 of his career and first of the season (he’s now 2-of-2 from deep as a Spartan).
The Huskers rallied back to take a 16-15 lead on a 3-pointer by Watson after he shook free of Michigan State freshman Foster Loyer. The Huskers deployed their 1-3-1 defense out of the under-12 timeout and forced an off-target contested 3, then Watson canned another 3 after an offensive rebound by Tanner Borchardt.
Michigan State pulled ahead 20-19 with a three-point play by freshman Gabe Brown that sent Borchardt to the bench with his second foul. Empty possessions by both teams led to the under-8 timeout and Miles drew up a play to spring Thomas Allen Jr. free for a 3 from the right wing, and the sophomore knocked it down.
Winston tied the game with a shot in the lane but Nebraska got layups from Roby and Allen to pull ahead 26-22, its largest lead of the half. The Huskers went ice cold from there, however, missing their final eight field goals of the half as Michigan State closed on an 11-2 run with Nebraska’s 2 coming at the free-throw line. Roby picked up his second foul at the 3:18 mark and Borchardt took his place, then Borchardt picked up his third, bringing freshman Brady Heiman off the bench for the final 1:46 of the half.
Nebraska shot 29.3 percent from the field in the first half, hitting just 10 field goals in 20 minutes. Copeland led the Huskers with nine points but missed his last six shots after a 3-for-3 start.
Michigan State shot 44.8 percent but only made three more buckets thanks to nine turnovers which Nebraska converted into 11 points. Winston had 16 points and three assists by himself in the half.
“I think they just did a lot of things to get us off balance, to pay attention to their bigs and then he got off a screen or something like that,” Watson said. “He got going early and I think that just got him in a rhythm to make easy shots or he banked on in and things like that. I think in the second half we did a better job on him and we’ve just got to learn from it.”
Roby picked up his third foul just 2:44 into the half and checked out, but he returned at the 14:08 mark. Nebraska got off to a good start, holding Michigan State scoreless for just over three minutes and taking a 36-35 lead with a 6-0 run.
Michigan State countered with a 9-4 run to take a 44-40 lead at the under-12 timeout. Roby and Palmer asserted themselves on defense and offense, respectively, to tie the game as Roby broke up an alley-oop pass for a steal then blocked a shot at the rim while Palmer converted those stops into points with a layup and a pair of free throws.
A 7-0 run aided by two turnovers, a missed 3 and a missed shot at the rim by Nebraska allowed the Spartans to take the lead for good. Layups by Allen and Palmer pulled the Huskers within three, but that’s as close as they got as Michigan State answered with a 9-0 run to take their biggest lead of the game at 60-48 with 1:50 to play.
“I think when we got down seven, we lost heart a little bit for a few possessions to allow it to go to 11 or 12, and you can’t, especially when time is of the essence, there’s 3, 4, 5 minutes left,” Miles said. “You have to stay in there and stay with the plan.”
During that stretch, Nebraska missed three 3-pointers and the front end of the bonus, got whistled for offensive goal-tending once and committed another live-ball turnover.
The Huskers made one last rally, cutting Michigan State’s lead all the way down to four — thanks in part to a five-point possessions consisting of a put-back dunk plus a foul by Nana Akenten and an and-one put-back by Palmer after Akenten missed his free throw — with less than 30 seconds to play, but the Spartans hit their free throws and the magic ran out for Nebraska.
Palmer scored 12 of his points in the final 1:50 after the Spartans had pulled ahead by 12. He was 3-of-16 from the field and 6-of-6 from the foul line until that point.
The Huskers shot 1-of-12 from 3 in the second half with the only make coming during that late rally by Palmer.
Nebraska mixed up its defense throughout the night, sending double teams at Ward in the post early and mixing in some 1-3-1 zone here and there, but Winston found a way to exploit what Nebraska was doing like the all-conference guard that he is.
“I will say this: I thought Thomas Allen did a pretty good job on Winston in the second half,” Miles said. “The choices you make are — they’re going to get you. I just thought we had to help to Roby to keep him in the game, and even Tanner or Brady or whoever I thought that Roby’s second foul — after that it was tied or we might have even been ahead — and then they go up five. That was critical because we had both centers in foul trouble there and then we kind of let the first half get away from us and then we battled back and take the lead again. But you need to build and play from the front on these teams.
“You have to credit Michigan State — they’re a very strong, athletic team that defends. There’s a reason they’re one of the top teams in the country defensively. This is their sixth true road win. They were primed for this moment; it’s not like they’re an upstart. And Coach Izzy is as good as there is in the game of basketball, college or pro. They did a good job. They did a really good job and I think you have to credit them — they made the plays. We turned them over a little bit, but not enough, and we didn’t finish in transition or at the rim.”
Nebraska will hit the road once again start off next week as Rutgers hosts the Huskers on Monday. Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. on BTN.
“You can’t stick around and be disappointed because you’ve got Rutgers that just beat a ranked team at home and you’ve got to be ready to go,” Miles said.
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.