What began as a competitive game between two teams desperate to stay out of the Big Ten Tournament play-in round ended up as a rout as Illinois shot the lights out in the second half to turn a two-point halftime advantage into a 16-point victory.
The Illini (17-12, 7-9) shot 13-of-26 from 3-point range on their way to a 73-57 win at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Sunday night in front of a crowd of 14,236. Nebraska (12-16, 6-10) turned the ball over 18 times, leading to 21 points for the Illini with 12 of those turnovers and 14 of those points coming after halftime.
Nebraska coach Tim Miles said a variety of factors played into the breakdowns on defense that led to Illinois getting so many looks from the perimeter.
“I thought tonight, our carelessness with the ball led into some easy 3s,” Miles said. “I thought we lost our discipline defensively several times — to me, several is like six or seven that led to open shots — and they hit three or four 3s there. We doubled the post some and gave up one there … I was very conservative tonight, I thought, in the way. We had one day of practice so I felt like maybe I should take some of our bigger wings off of a guy like Coleman-Lands or even Abrams, but Abrams came in shooting 17.8 percent from 3 and he goes 4-for-5. But, after he made two it doesn’t matter if he’s shooting 1 percent, you’ve got to get to him … I put our guys in some bad situations.”
Nebraska took an early 7-5 lead, but proceeded to go scoreless over the next 5:07 as Illinois reeled off a 10-0 run. Nebraska scored two straight buckets to end the run, but Illinois stretched the lead back to six at 19-13.
After struggling to hit jumpers throughout the first 12 minutes, the Huskers came alive from behind the arc with back-to-back 3-pointers by senior guard Tai Webster and freshman forward Jeriah Horne then an old-fashioned three-point play by Webster gave the Huskers their first lead since 7-5 at 22-21.
Nebraska tied its biggest lead of the half at 26-23 but a 7-0 including two more 3-pointers out the Illini in the lead, and they never trailed again. Sophomore forward Ed Morrow Jr. hit a pair of free throws to close out the half at 30-28 Illinois.
Nebraska tied the game at 30-all and 32-all, but senior Tracy Abrams put the Illini ahead with another 3-pointer and they never looked back. Illinois hit seven of its first eight 3-pointers in the second half and Nebraska couldn’t keep up.
“Coach and I were talking about it and I think sometimes we get so caught up in trying to hang in the game, that rather than being the one to attack first and come at them rather than sustaining punches rather than just with retaliation,” Horne said. “I think that’s just one thing we’ve got to get better at, and it’s a process. We’ll get there.”
The deficit hit double digits at 47-37 and never dipped below that mark the rest of the way as it grew as large as 19 points with 2:30 to go.
Webster finished with 17 points — his 29th straight game in double figures — on 6-of-15 shooting with eight rebounds, five assists and four steals — all team-highs. Sophomore point guard Glynn Watson Jr. tied Webster for the team-high with 33 minutes, but only produced three points on 1-of-6 shooting and three assists to three turnovers. Illinois coach John Groce said he was pleased with how his team defended Nebraska’s backcourt.
“That’s hard to do,” Groce said. “Those two guys are great at getting in the paint and making plays not only for themselves, but for others. We’ve got great respect for both of those guys and it took a total team effort to do the best we could to keep them out of the paint. They still got there quite a bit it seemed like; just two really terrific players.”
Junior guard Evan Taylor finished with nine points and knocked down his third 3-pointer of the season.
The Husker grabbed 11 offensive rebounds but only converted them into nine second-chance points and shot 4-of-15 from deep and 37.5 percent overall.
After holding Illinois senior wing Malcolm Hill (17 points per game) to five points on 2-of-6 shooting in the first half, the Huskers allowed him to finish with a game-high 19 points as he shot 3-of-4 from deep. Abrams (4-of-5 from 3) and senior center Maverick Morgan also finished with double figures with 13 and 12 points, respectively.
The game was part of Legends Weekend as nearly 75 former players were honored on the court at halftime, and former stand-out center Aleks Maric returned to Lincoln for the first time since his playing days and got his own standing ovation during a first-half media timeout.
The Huskers will return to the court on Thursday to take on Minnesota in Minneapolis. Tip-off is set for 6 p.m.
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.