For the first time since Nebraska’s last Big Ten win — Jan. 7, 2020 — the Huskers held a halftime lead over a Big Ten team.
The Huskers had one final possession to make sure they held the lead at the end of the game as well, but poor execution sent the game to overtime where No. 6 Illinois escaped with a 77-72 win at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Friday night.
The Huskers executed a brilliant play that saw Derrick Walker hit Dalano Banton on a cut for a go-ahead layup plus a foul with just under 40 seconds to play. Banton missed the free throw, however, and Illinois star guard Ayo Dosunmu took it right to the rim for a layup with 20 seconds to go, tying the game.
Nebraska pushed the ball into the frontcourt and called timeout to draw something up. The Huskers got the ball in to Trey McGowens and he dribbled the clock down, holding for the last shot. Teddy Allen moved toward McGowens with a hand-up, either calling for the ball or signaling he was going to set a screen, but neither happened and McGowens continued to pound the ball as the clock ticked under three seconds. He finally picked up his dribble and got off a circus shot at the buzzer that wasn’t anywhere close to going in.
“I couldn’t be more proud of my guys for fighting the way they did and going toe-to-toe with the No. 6 team in the country,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said. “This has been an incredibly difficult stretch for everybody involved, and for those guys to go out there sore, beat up, on this losing streak and find a way to continue to muster up the energy to go out and compete the way we are, I give our guys all the credit in the world for that …
“But the lack of execution on that last play is extremely disappointing. To draw something up that we think could have at least gotten us a good look to win a game like this, and then to go out and have a couple guys in the wrong spots, that’s the hard thing. That’s going to be the one that certainly will keep me up tonight. But as I told our guys, the biggest thing we need to take out of this is to know that we can play with anybody. To battle a team that’s going to be a national championship contender, that’s a huge step in the right direction and I’m really proud of the guys for that.”
Dosunmu dominated down the stretch and proved to be too much in overtime as he finished with 31 points and six assists in 42 minutes. Kofi Cockburn, the sophomore behemoth, added 21 points and 13 rebounds, but Nebraska collection of bigs led by Derrick Walker made him work for every point as he took just eight field goal attempts and the Huskers sent him to the line often enough to attempt 12 free throws.
“That was one of the biggest things in the four days of preparation, going into live play again, we really worked on our ball pressure and we really worked on fronting the post, and our bigs have done a tremendous job of that,” Hoiberg said. “We talked to our bigs about we had 15 fouls to give and I thought we had some good ones there … Our bigs, they battled the strongest guy in our league and if they can do it against him, then we should be able to do it against anybody.”
Illinois shot 48.3% from the field, becoming the first team since Nebraska returned from its shutdown to crack that 40% threshold.
Nebraska shot just 36.9% from the field and 68% from the free-throw line. The Huskers out-rebounded Illinois 15-9 on the offensive glass and outscored them 18-9 to give themselves a chance against the team that is leading the Big Ten in rebounding margin. The Huskers turned the ball over 13 times, a significant improvement from the last three games.
Lat Mayen led the Huskers with a career-high 16 points, his fifth straight game in double digits. Allen and McGowens added 15 points apiece. Allen had 11 points on 5-of-8 shooting in regulation before going 0-for-4 in overtime as Nebraska’s offense ground to a halt and Allen fired up some difficult shots late in the clock. McGowens shot 5-of-20 from the field.
Nebraska brought great energy defensively from the opening tip, coming out in a match-up zone to make it tough on the Illinois to get the ball inside to Cockburn. The Huskers scored the first nine points of the game including a 7-0 personal run for Mayen.
Illinois finally found a rhythm from the perimeter, knocking down three 3-pointers to narrow the gap to two before tying the game twice at 11-11 and 14-14.
Then Thorir Thorbjarnarson took over. The senior went into Friday night shooting 1-of-11 from 3 in Big Ten games this season but he knocked down two of them in the span of 70 seconds — with a takeaway block in-between — to put the Huskers up 20-14.
The teams traded blows from there until the Huskers pushed the lead to eight at 32-24 at the under-four timeout. Then the offense dried up, as we’ve seen in every Big Ten game this season.
Nebraska scored two points in the final four minutes, shooting 1-of-6 from the field with two turnovers. Illinois converted a four-point possession during that stretch as Dosunmu finished through a foul. He missed the free throw but Cockburn grabbed the board and scored himself. Including that put-back, Cockburn scored Illinois’ last seven points of the half to cut Nebraska’s lead to 34-33 at halftime.
Thorbjarnarson added a short jumper to his total later in the half to give him a team-high eight points off the bench at the break. Allen, McGowens, Mayen and Stevenson etched scored two buckets in the first 20 minutes as Nebraska shot 44.8% from the field including 3-of-8 from 3 (the third triple came from Shamiel Stevenson, who was 1-17 from 3 as a Husker heading into the game).
The lead changed hands four times early in the second half before a Dosunmu dunk gave Illinois a 44-39 lead. The Huskers buckled down from there and put together a 13-2 run to turn the game around and take a 52-46 lead.
Then the offense dried up once again. Nebraska went nearly four minutes without a point as the Illini hit four straight shots and scored 10 in a row to take the lead. A free-throw by Yvan Ouedraogo sparked a 12-2 Husker run capped by back-to-back 3s by Mayen.
Dosunmu took over from there. The All-America guard scored Illinois’ final 10 points including the game-tying bucket with 20 seconds to go. Nebraska had a chance to answer but failed to execute.
Dosunmu continued to control the action in the overtime period as he scored the first five points to give the Illini the lead for good. Dosunmu was the only player to convert from the field in the extra five minutes as Nebraska went 0-of-5 from the field and 6-of-8 from the foul line with a turnover.
The Huskers don’t have much time to dwell on their near miss. Nebraska will hit the road on Saturday for an afternoon tipoff at Penn State on Sunday.
“We’ll go in and test at 8 in the morning and then we’ll go straight to the airport from there and then fly out,” Hoiberg said. “I think our fight is at 9 a.m. It will be a long flight, get our guys some rest and get their feet up, and then we’ll be able to go over to the gym at I think 4:30 or 5 for a very light walk-through with an early game. That’s the hard thing about this one, to have to play early and then have a day and then bounce back and finish this crazy stretch. I think it’s seven games in 12 days in five states, capping that off with the back-to-back at Maryland after having 20 days off.”
The game is set for 2 p.m. CT on Big Ten Network.
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.