On Friday, James Palmer Jr. watched from the bench as Penn State’s Tony Carr hit agama-winner to beat the Huskers in overtime. Palmer had shot just 1-of-9 to that point and Coach Tim Miles went with another player during the final 10 minutes.
Monday was a different story, however, as not only was Palmer on the court in the biggest moment of the game against Illinois, he had the ball in his hands.
With Nebraska leading by two, Illinois forward Michael Finke converted a four-point play to put the Illini up 63-61 with 8.1 to play. After a timeout, the Huskers in-bounded to Glynn Watson Jr. who pushed the ball up the court and swung it to Palmer with three seconds to go. Palmer put the ball on the deck once, jumped forward and launched an off-balance 3.
The shot went through with 0.3 on the clock and Illinois couldn’t get a shot off before time expired, sealing a 64-63 home win for the Huskers.
“As I told our team, nothing is given; everything is earned,” Illinois Coach Brad Underwood said. “Give Palmer credit. He made a heck of a shot. We felt pretty good watching him come up the floor, and we took about six seconds in the backcourt and the kid just stepped up and made a shot.”
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Palmer finished with a game-high 24 points on 10-of-19 shooting. He was 1-of-6 from 3 before the game-winner.
“I definitely had to come out and play well this game, couldn’t have two bad games in a row,” Palmer said. “Penn State, I really think it was on me because I didn’t show up in a road game, and we took the loss hard so we had to come out and play hard today. That’s what I tried to do, help the team as much as possible.”
As a team, the Huskers (13-7, 4-3) shot 41.2 percent from the field and 21.7 percent (5-of-23) from 3. However, they held Illinois (10-9, 0-6) to 39 percent overall and 16.7 percent (3-of-18) from deep. Illinois rebounded 18 of its 36 misses but only converted those boards into 14 second chance points.
The outside shooting in the first half was as cold as the temperature outside of Pinnacle Bank Arena as Nebraska and Illinois combined to shoot 3-of-21 from 3.
Both teams hit their first shot of the game then began to struggle as it would take more than four minutes for the next bucket. Evan Taylor, who came off the bench for the first time this season, scored to spark a 5-2 run that put the Huskers up 11-6.
Taylor finished with 13 points on 4-of-7 shooting and two assists without a turnover in 26 minutes. The senior had totaled 17 points on 6-of-24 shooting with nine assists and 10 turnovers in his first six Big Ten games.
"I take him out of the starting lineup and that means something to Evan,” Miles said. “As a guy that doesn't score a lot, but does a lot of the dirty work for the team, you appreciate starting a little more than the rest of the guys. He was in the gym the last two days, working hard. To see him come out and play really sharp, I was thankful and we were lucky to have him because he made a lot of good, winning plays."
Nebraska’s lead bounced between two and five over the next couple of minutes until a 7-0 run by the Illini put them ahead 19-17. Nebraska responded with a 9-1 run of its own to pull ahead 26-20, then took its biggest lead of the half on a four-point play by freshman point guard Thomas Allen that put the Huskers up 32-25 with 2:16 to go.
Illinois closed the half on a 5-0 run to cut its deficit to two at the break. Palmer and Taylor combined for 21 of Nebraska’s 32 points in the first 20 minutes.
Illinois scored on its first four possessions of the second half to take a 38-34 lead and force an early Nebraska timeout. Whatever Miles said in the huddle seemed to work, though, as Nebraska forced a turnover on five of Illinois’ next six possessions, stringing together a 14-0 run to take a 48-40 lead midway through the half.
Illinois wasn’t ready to give in, however, as the Illini pieced together a 13-7 run to pull within two just inside of the five-minute mark. Illinois cut it to two three more times, the last of which came on a bucket by Finke with 30 seconds to play.
Nebraska got the ball to Palmer and Illinois fouled him, sending him to the free-throw line for one-and-one. Palmer missed the front end, setting up Finke’s go-ahead four-point play, but atoned for his sins with the game-winner.
"I'm very happy for James,” Miles said. “I thought he bounced back in a big way. He and I had a good talk. 'James, I believe in you. You're a go-to guy.' I stuck with him when he was falling down tonight. James can make plays. That's always valuable and I thought he was really good tonight.”
The Huskers will need Palmer to step up again on Thursday as the Michigan Wolverines (16-4, 5-2) swing through Lincoln. The Wolverines are currently sitting in third place in the Big Ten, one game ahead of Nebraska, after surviving against Maryland on Monday night. Tip-off is set for 8 p.m. 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.