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Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Meddlesome Middle Helps Michigan State Down Nebraska 84-77

January 02, 2021

Nebraska just sort of lethargically walked out of the tunnel as the halftime break wound down. A spattering of red was just sauntering while, from the other tunnel, Michigan State emerged with a jog and a straight line of green and black making its way to the floor. 

When play began in the second half, the Huskers turned the ball over on back-to-back possessions. 

Coach Fred Hoiberg pulled guard Teddy Allen, the star of the show Saturday, after a minute and 35 seconds because he didn’t like the urgency. 

Energy wasn’t an issue later, in fact Hoiberg thought it was “phenomenal” once Nebraska got over the early second-half malaise. But, the fire to trim a seven-point deficit at intermission wasn’t there and Michigan State threatened to blow the game open. 

Within the first two-and-a-half minutes, the Spartans ballooned the lead to 17. 

Nebraska fought back, though. At one point, the Huskers had cut the deficit to five. After a disheartening loss to Ohio State on the road, Nebraska’s coach took solace in knowing it didn’t bow out this time. Still, the details continue to nag Nebraska. It never got closer than five and eventually fell 84-77. 

The loss dropped NU to 4-7 on the year and 0-4 in conference play.

“We’ve had too many moral victories,” said guard Trey McGowens. “We’ve just gotta turn the page.”

“We just have to find a way to get the full 40 minutes,” added Hoiberg.

It’s the details of the thing. 

Michigan State slapped the floor and chanted from the bench. The Spartans worked the ball around, mixing drive-and-kicks with cross-court skip passes to put Nebraska’s defense in scramble mode and create openings. Huskers got beat off the dribble. 

It’s in the weakside guy getting an offensive rebound because no one boxed him out. A huge issue? Nebraska only gave up nine, which was exactly what Sparty gave up to the Huskers themselves, but eight of those came in the second half.

It’s in the over-dribble that leads to stagnate offense and a turnover, or dribbling out the shot-clock after receiving what looked like a “no you take the turnover or bad shot” pass. In total, Nebraska had 18 turnovers.

It’s in a pair of missed free throws in the final three minutes when the game is within two possessions. Nebraska missed five on the evening. Big deal, Michigan State missed seven.

But, taken in conjunction with one another you get a tough hill to climb.

“We talked about three things in this game: transition, defense, which they exposed us in that area, especially during that run, and offensive rebounds,” Hoiberg said. “We gave them eight in the second (half), two critical ones there at the end where we just turned our head and allowed (Joshua) Langford to go in there and get the putback with a five-point game. You get that, you come down and you score, you get it to a one-possession, and it could have been a different outcome.”

Nebraska made nine of its first 15 shots. Few were particularly easy, but the Huskers hit them. In climbing back into the game, Nebraska had a similar shot-making flair. 

But after the first 13 minutes, Nebraska went cold. For the final seven minutes of the first half and the first three of the second, Nebraska missed 11 of its 14 shot attempts. 

“You cut that out, we win the game,” Hoiberg said. 

The middle portions are biting NU’s behind. Hoiberg said they’re pulling their hair out trying to diagnose the culprit.

“A lot of other games, around that time, we kind of separate,” McGowens said. “We didn’t want to do that as a team.”

When the offense finally kicked in, specifically when Allen entered flamethrower mode and ignited an 11-2 run with three triples, Nebraska clawed its way back into the game because it paired shot-making at one end with stops at the other. 

Allen led the Huskers with 23 points on 10-of-18 shooting. McGowens had 20 on 6-of-10 shooting. Those guys brought it. McGowens, an incredible and explosive athlete, helped open things up with his attack. “If I’m aggressive, it’s going to open up a lot of stuff for my teammates,” he said. Hoiberg thought he played his most complete game.

NU was there at the end, which is more than it can say of its last Big Ten outing. 

“Again, gotta find a way to play a complete 40 minutes, but I think we took a step in the right direction today,” Hoiberg said.

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