Isaiah Roby
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Isaiah Roby, Stout Defense Help Nebraska Down Northwestern, 59-50

February 17, 2019

Since 2010, Nebraska has shot under 35 percent from the floor 32 times. Nebraska has won two of those games. When you don’t hit shots, you’re not supposed to win basketball games. 

Emphasis on “supposed to.”

Well, the Huskers now have three such wins, and they earned the latest on the strength of their defense. Nebraska, now 15-11 (5-10 Big Ten), shot 33 percent from the field and still beat Northwestern (12-13, 3-11 Big Ten) 59-50 at home to earn back-to-back wins after a month of losing. 

Despite the frosty conditions outside Pinnacle Bank Arena’s walls, Husker faithful brought energy. Nebraska honored Husker legends of the past at halftime, so it seemed only fitting to win in a throwback manner. Forward Isaiah Roby had 19 points but took 19 shots to get there. Guard James Palmer Jr. had 13 points on 17 shots. Point guard Glynn Watson Jr. had 12 on 12.

“If you would have told me [Roby] was going to get 19 on 19 shots and we were going to hold them under 60… It wasn’t our defense,” Northwestern head coach Chris Collins said after the game. “Our defense wasn’t the reason we lost.”

No, Nebraska’s defense was. 

Because the Wildcats only shot 34 percent themselves, couldn’t get to the free throw line and missed 20 of their 25 triples. Nebraska gave Watson the Vic Law defensive assignment and it worked about as well as anyone could have hoped. Northwestern’s senior forward and leading scorer has seven inches on Nebraska’s senior point, and Watson limited him to 15 points (right at his average) on 15 shots.

“I thought we were really good defensively tonight, I thought we had a very solid defensive effort,” head coach Tim Miles said. “And when I say ‘solid’ that is not a dismissive, ‘Oh we were solid.’ It was like, ‘We were rock solid.’” 

“Glynn Watson did a very good job on Vic Law. I know it looks crazy to see that guy (Law) out there seven inches taller than our guy, but Glynn, it’s hard to post him up… I thought that was really key.”

For two games now, Nebraska has committed to the defensive end of the floor. Northwestern isn’t an offensive dynamo — at one point in the first half it looked like center Barret Benson actually got blocked by the backboard on his way up from under the hoop — but Nebraska wasn’t much better in its own right. 

Late in the first half, Nebraska doubled Cats star Dererk Pardon off an entry feed in the low post. Freshman Amir Harris, guarding forward Aaron Falzon at the top of the key, dropped down under the free throw line to crowd Pardon. When the ball was kicked back out, Harris recovered and poked the ball loose as Falzon tried to drive by. 

Roby picked it up and rifled it to a streaking Harris for an easy two points at the other end. 

Late in the second half, Law threw a lazy pass that Watson cut in front of and took coast-to-coast for a lay-in. On the very next possession, Law was whistled for traveling, so Watson went down on the other end and promptly canned a triple. It gave the Huskers a 50-41 lead and was part of an 11-0 run to officially end the game before it ended. 

After Northwestern took its first lead of the night, 36-35 with 14:27 to play, Nebraska started mixing in the 1-3-1 zone on defense. The Cats prepared, but practice is different than live-game execution. From that point on, they had eight turnovers and five made shots. 

“I thought we had some real critical live-ball turnovers during that stretch that gave them some separation,” Collins said. “For us to hold them to 59 points but you see 16 off live-ball turnovers. In a 50-point game, those are crushers.”

Nebraska held a 10-point edge in points off turnovers and won by nine. Northwestern had 15 turns that led to 16 Husker points. Roby tied a season-high with five blocked shots and half of the guys who saw the floor for Nebraska logged a steal. Miles’ group held a 12-0 edge in fastbreak points. 

After giving up 70 four times and an 80-piece to Purdue during the seven-game slide, Nebraska’s defense has suffocated back-to-back opponents. Minnesota cracked 60 right at the end, Northwestern didn’t get to 50 until a 3-ball with 10 seconds left. 

Don’t look now, but the Huskers might be rediscovering their mojo, and, in the process, they’ve figured out how to win without Isaac Copeland.

“If we don’t (win with defense),” Miles said, “we don’t win.”

Now, to Roby, because his individual performance bears mentioning.

Northwestern’s gameplan was to let him shoot. In 18 Big Ten games last season, Roby only took 21 triples (making 11). Heading into the game Saturday night, he had taken 36 in 14 games but still only made 11. Northwestern was content to pack the paint and bait Roby into deep shots. 

In the first half, he wasn’t making them pay for it. 

That changed in the second half.

“I got challenged by my teammates a lot just to be more aggressive on both ends,” Roby said. “I would say that’s what was working for me… Everybody [challenged me]. Those are my brothers, so I expect them to keep it real with me. I appreciated that.”

They told him in the locker room at halftime to shoot. And shoot he did. He fired up four 3s in the first eight minutes of the second half. Twelve of his 19 points and 11 of his career-high 16 rebounds came after the intermission. Roby was everywhere all night long, but his aggression on the offensive end peaked in the final 20 minutes. 

All while playing 38 minutes of foul-free basketball.

“We have an IER chart, individual efficiency, and his numbers will be just through the roof,” Miles said. “I just thought he was terrific tonight. That’s the Isaiah Roby I think we all see with that high ceiling.”

When he wasn’t shooting, fans groaned, because that ceiling Miles is talking about is one everyone sees. He’s a more-than-capable shooter when he lets them fly with a little bit of confidence

“He’s an athlete,” center Tanner Borchardt said of his frontcourt partner. “Every game he has those pick-and-pops where he likes to pump fake and drive. He’s a tremendous shooter so he just needs to learn to take those shots, and as you can see, he can make them.”

Eventually, the up-fake-and-drive disappears if the defense knows he’s not going to shoot. Miles and the rest of the team know Roby can be a little enigmatic at times, taking over one game and fading to the background the next. Maybe that was the reason for the halftime talk. He’ll need to stay aggressive as Nebraska closes out the season. So will Palmer and Watson. “We weren’t used to everybody being as aggressive as they needed to be,” Roby said of when Copeland was lost with the knee injury.

But they’re figuring it out and the results are following

“You can definitely see the morale starting to rise a little bit,” Borchardt said. “It felt great to get that monkey off the back. I think our guys are playing more freely now. Even in practice, you can see we are enjoying ourselves more.”

Next up is Penn State (9-15, 2-11 Big Ten) on the road on Tuesday, Feb. 19 for a 6 p.m. CT tip. 

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