Nebraska kept Illinois star center Kofi Cockburn mostly in check for 36 minutes, but in the final four minutes, it was his back-up, Omar Payne, who helped push the No. 25 Illini over the top in an 81-71 win at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Tuesday night.
The Huskers (6-11, 0-6 Big Ten) battled to a 65-all tie at the final media timeout, but Illinois (12-3, 5-0) scored on its final five possessions — rebounding each of its misses and hitting all of its free throws — to fend off the upset attempt from the Huskers. Payne made three big plays down the stretch in what Illinois coach Brad Underwood called a “coming-out party” for the junior transfer from Florida.
“We really got off to a great start and we have to continue to do that,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said. “The important thing, obviously, is to make it consistent for 40 minutes. I thought we went through a lull in the middle of the first half and then closed it well and took a lead into the break. This team is, right now, as hot as anybody, not only in the Big Ten but as hot as anybody in the country, and we fought them all the way there to the end. There are some positives that we can take out of this game and hopefully close one of these out to get confidence, to know that we can do it.”
Bryce McGowens led Nebraska with 19 points including three big dunks in the second half. Derrick Walker scored 14 points on 7-of-11 shooting and was the primary defender on Cockburn. Alonzo Verge Jr. added 14 points and nine assists.
The Huskers shot 45.8% from the field including 6-of-12 from deep (a season-low by eight attempts) and 11-of-14 from the free-throw line.
“They eliminate the 3 as well as any team in the country,” Hoiberg said. “They drop Kofi down in the restricted area and they force you into the mid-range. I thought we had some good mid-range looks and I thought we had some forced mid-range looks. We talked about that part of the game plan, that they force you into those shots because they stay home with the shooting and then they drop Kofi and their guards do a good job getting through screens. For the most part I thought we had a solid offensive game. I’d love to get a couple of those possessions back but this is one of the top defenses in the country and I thought we had some really good possessions out there.”
Cockburn finished with 16 points and 13 rebounds, but he shot 8-of-18 from the field and 0-of-5 from the line with two turnovers and just one assist. Underwood credited Walker’s effort on the Illini’s 7-foot, 285-pound center, calling the Huskers’ big man one of the best interior defenders in the league.
“I feel like Derrick brought it,” McGowens said. “That’s just what Derek does. He’s a high-energy guy. He’s one of the leaders of our team and every night he’s going to bring it, every day he’s going to bring it, and that’s why that’s why, personally, I love Derrick.”
Sixth-year senior Trent Frazier stepped up, however, scoring a game-high 29 points and dishing out five assists while coming up clutch in the final four minutes. The Illini shot 47% from the field (7-of-19 from 3) and 12-of-19 from the foul line and out-scored the Huskers 44 to 36 in the paint.
“I thought we guarded the 3 all night long extremely well,” Hoiberg said. “When you play a team like this with Kofi with four shooters around him, you can’t take away everything. The decision was made to play mostly one-on-one in the post, try to dig in there when we could. I thought we executed some good fouls there at the end to put him on the free-throw line. But they hit the big ones there at the end of the game when it mattered most. Our effort was phenomenal; I thought we fought them all the way to the end. We’ve got to execute better down the stretch.”
Nebraska got off to arguably its best start of the season, hitting six of its first seven shots with a mix of buckets inside from Walker and shots from the perimeter (4-of-4 to start from deep).
The good vibes didn’t last long, however. Illinois kept pounding it inside to Cockburn until jumpers started falling, and the Illini stepped up the intensity on defense. Illinois answered Nebraska’s 16-4 start with a 27-7 run that including 2-of-16 shooting and four turnovers by the Huskers.
Nebraska fell behind 31-23 before an Illinois goal tend on a McGowens layup ended a seven-and-a-half minute drought from the field, sparking an 11-0 run to end the half. Keisei Tominaga keyed the run by finding Verge on a back-cut for a layup, then diving on a loose ball for a steal and calling timeout to secure possession, then hitting a pull-up after a defender flew out to him at the top of the key.
Verge, who went through a shaky stretch of decision-making during Nebraska’s scoring drought, closed the half strong as he found Lat Mayen in the corner all alone for a 3 then forced a turnover and drew a foul with 0.2 on the clock, hitting both shots to give the Huskers a 34-31 lead at halftime.
McGowens led all scorers in the first half with 10 points as Nebraska shot 42.9% from the field including 5-of-9 from 3. The Huskers hit all five of their free throws while Illinois went 0-for-3 in a half that saw just 11 fouls called.
The Huskers limited Cockburn to eight points on nine possessions (4-of-7 from the field, 0-of-2 from the foul line, one turnover) as the Illini shot 46.7% overall including 3-of-10 from deep.
The Huskers opened the second half with a put-back by Walker to make it a 13-0 run, but Illinois pulled within two after a pair of easy buckets from Cockburn against the fronting Walker who didn’t have any back side help.
After big swings in the first half, the second half turned into a dog fight as the lead changed hands a few times before the under-12 timeout. After six minutes of back-and-forth play, the Illini surged ahead with an 8-1 run, but the Huskers righted the ship from there and kept Illinois from pulling away.
The Huskers tied it up at 65-all at the 3:57 mark after McGowens drew Cockburn’s fourth foul on a rebound while in the bonus and hit both free throws. Underwood sat his star big man down but Payne came up big in his place. After Coleman Hawkins gave Illinois the lead again with a put-back (on his third attempt), Payne blocked McGowens at the basket then threw down a dunk at the other end.
A turnover from Verge led to a Da’Monte Williams 3-pointer, capping a 7-0 run in less than 60 seconds and the Illini scored on their last four possessions including 6-for-6 foul shooting (two by Payne, four by Frazier) and a step-back 3 from Frazier to seal the victory. Cockburn never returned to the game.
“Trent Frazier has been one of the best guards in this league for a long time and they put the ball in his hands, ran that little dive action to the pick-and-roll and trusted that he’d make the right play and he did for the most part,” Hoiberg said. “He hit the big 3, the step-back 3, to put it out of reach and got himself to the free-throw line there at the end and knocked down his free throws. That’s who that kid has been his whole career. He was he was unbelievable there down the stretch.”
The Huskers shot 48.4% from the field in the second half, but Illinois limited the Huskers to just three 3-point attempts. The Illini shot 4-of-9 from deep and 47.2% overall after halftime.
Nebraska will hit the road again later this week to take on Purdue on Friday.
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.