Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Missed Free Throws Open Door as No. 13 Ohio State Rallies to Beat Nebraska in Overtime

January 02, 2022

For the third time this season, the Huskers had a chance to win a game at the free-throw line and came up short, letting an upset over No. 13 Ohio State slip through their fingers on Sunday night.

The Buckeyes rallied from down five with less than 30 seconds to play to force overtime then dominated the extra period en route to an 87-79 win at Pinnacle Bank Arena.

The Buckeyes were without their third-leading scorer, super senior forward Kyle Young, and Nebraska held their top two scorers — forwards E.J. Liddell and Zed Key — to 17 points on a combined 5-of-19 shooting. The team’s top perimeter threat and fourth-leading scorer, Justin Ahrens, finished with five points on 1-of-5 from deep.

However, freshman Malaki Branham, who had scored 63 points in Ohio State’s first 10 games, exploded for a game-high 35 while senior point guard Jamari Wheeler added 16 points. The pair combined to shoot 10-of-15 from 3 as the Buckeyes fired up 34 triples and hit 16 of them (both season-highs) for a 47.1% clip overall.

“I am really proud of the guys for how they went out and battled,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said. “The biggest thing when you play Ohio State is their physicality and that is what concerns you the most. I thought we did an unbelievable job of matching that, especially early … Lot of positives that we can build on. Too many second-chance, too many offensive rebounds for them and then obviously 3s that they hit early —  we wanted to take a couple their shooters out and unfortunately others burned us early. We switched some of our coverages up. We still had, obviously, great chances to win that game.”

Nebraska outscored Ohio State by 10 in the paint and attempted nine more free-throws while shooting them at a 73.9% rate. Ohio State’s 3-point explosion and two missed free throws at the worst possible moment outweighed all the positive the Huskers did, however, resulting in their eighth loss off the season and third straight against Big Ten opponents.

“We missed some against Western Illinois, we obviously missed at N.C. State and then tonight,” Hoiberg said. “So we’ve just got to step up there with confidence and knock them down. We’re a better free-throw shooting team this year, but we have missed some down the stretch. But again, what I look at is overall, other possessions, those are the ones that stand out because they could have been the game winners, but there are plenty of possessions, plenty of other reasons why we lost that game.”

Bryce McGowens led the Huskers with 18 points, but he shot just 6-of-19 from the field. Derrick Walker recorded his third double-double of the season with 15 points and 10 rebounds. C.J. Wilcher added 13 points off the bench on 5-of-8 from the field (3-of-4 from 3). Nebraska shot 41.5% from the field including 34.8% from 3 and finished with half as many turnovers as the Buckeyes, eight to 16.

“We’re not about moral victories,” Hoiberg said. “It’s still extremely disappointing, very disappointed in the locker room, but that shows what we are capable of. If we play with that type of physicality, which we’re going to have to every night we step on the floor in this league, we are going to have a chance. The effort was there and we are a much different team than we were a few weeks ago, and again a lot of things we can build on in this one.”

The Huskers showed more signs of rust than the Buckeyes did early on as Ohio State jumped out to an 11-4 lead, then pushed it to 14-6. The Cornhuskers hit just two of their first 10 shots and turned the ball over five times.

Alonzo Verge Jr. found Wilcher on a cut to the rim to get the Huskers going, sparking a 10-0 run that also included a layup by Eduardo Andre and 3s from Kobe Webster and Wilcher. Verge assisted three of those four buckets as the Huskers took a 16-14 lead.

The Buckeyes answered with a 16-6 run to pull ahead by eight once again, but Nebraska put together another 10-0 run with all 10 points coming via drives to the rim (four layups and two free throws). McGowens had six of those points as the Husker regained the lead at 32-30.

Ohio State scored the last four points of the half to take a 34-32 edge into the locker room. The Huskers held Liddell and Key to a combined five points on 2-of-10 shooting, but Branham erupted for 21 points on 8-of-12 shooting including 5-of-8 from deep (matching his total for made 3s from the first 10 games of the season in one half). Ohio State scored just 12 points in the paint and shot 40.6% from the field with eight turnovers.

Nebraska shot 44.4% from the field but just 3-of-12 from 3, scoring 18 points in the paint and five at the foul line. Eight different Huskers scored led by Wilcher’s eight on 3-of-3 shooting.

Nebraska tied the game up three times to start the second half — at 34-34, 42-42 and 44-44 — but couldn’t quite get over the hump as the Buckeyes had an answer each time, pushing the lead back to eight with 3s from Meechie Johnson Jr. and Liddell.

After struggling to get stops, the Huskers dug in and forced couple of bad shots from the Buckeyes, taking advantage of their stops to tie the game up once again at 59-59 with 3s from Webster and Keisei Tominaga and a layup from Andre off a McGowens feed.

“Just staying together like we did, still competing at a high level,” Wilcher said about the team’s resiliency. “Basketball is a game of runs. They went on runs, we went on our runs. So I think there was some growth in that area because usually, if teams go on runs we kind of die down, things like that. I think we stuck together and that’s something we can build off of. But at the end of the day, we have to find a way to get through that and get that win.”

Nebraska finally broke through and took the lead when Walker, playing with three fouls, stepped in and took a charge on Liddell, then drew a foul on the other end and hit both shots to make it 62-61 with 6:30 to go. Walker scored a put-back on the next possession as well, then boxed out Liddell and drew his fourth foul while in the bonus, splitting the free throws to give the Huskers a 66-62 lead with just under five to play.

After Ohio State pulled within one, Nebraska got consecutive put-backs from Walker and Lat Mayen to take a 70-65 lead. An Ohio State bucket made it a one-possession game, but the Huskers pushed it back to five with an emphatic two-handed slam from Mayen on a drive and dish from Webster with 36 seconds to go.

“We felt the energy,” Wilcher said. “The crowd was in it. It felt good … I hadn’t experienced that type of environment yet in college. So it was dope for me personally, just having fans behind us like they did, like that. It was a good environment to play in.”

The Huskers didn’t get back in transition well enough and gave up a 3 to Wheeler nine seconds later, however. The Buckeyes fouled Mayen with 22.4 to go and put him at the line for the double-bonus with a chance to all but seal the victory.

He missed both. The Huskers forced a difficult shot at the rim but couldn’t secure the rebound as Liddell pulled it down and drew a foul. He hit both to tie it up with 8.9 to play.

Nebraska pushed the ball ahead and Webster attacked the basket, throwing up a contested shot that bounced hard off the backboard. Walker got his hands on it with 1.5 on the clock but Eugene Brown III blocked the put-back to send it to overtime.

“It was a play for Bryce coming off and it was our last timeout, so we didn’t have one, and then if he didn’t have it Kobe hit Derrick and then came off the handoff,” Hoiberg said about the last possession. “I thought he made a good play, Derrick had the offensive rebound and unfortunately [Brown] made a hell of a play at the rim on the block.”

Ohio State opened the extra period with 3s on three of its first four possessions to jump out to an 81-75 lead and the game continued to slip away from Nebraska the rest of the way.

The Huskers scored on just three of their seven possessions in overtime while the Buckeyes scored on six of their seven.

Verge, who finished with six points on 1-of-6 shooting and four assists in 22 minutes, subbed out at the 12:13 mark and never returned as Hoiberg stuck with McGowens and Webster as the primary ball-handlers the rest of the way.

“I thought Bryce, we used him a lot with the ball in his hands tonight and playmaking situations, and he made some big plays for us,” Hoiberg said. “He attacked better tonight, I thought he got downhill on a couple of occasions … The confidence in a freshman to go out there and make them, I had that in him tonight. I thought Kobe gave us really solid minutes off the bench. And C.J. obviously was terrific for us all night on both ends. It might be different guys on different nights and that’s what it was tonight.”

The road doesn’t get any easier for the Huskers as Big Ten play rolls on with a trip to East Lansing to take on No. 10 Michigan State on Wednesday night.

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