The Huskers live to fight another day behind a career-high from Isaiah Roby and strong contributions up and down the short lineup in an 80-76 win over Butler in the first round of the NIT at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Wednesday night.
The win was Nebraska’s first in the postseason (not including conference tournaments) since 2008 when the Huskers beat Charlotte in the first round of the NIT. The Huskers improved to 19-16 and ended Butler’s season at 16-17.
“We’re going to need a productive day out of a kid like Isaiah,” Coach Tim Miles said after practice on Tuesday. “Productive” is a good word for the game the junior forward had against the Bulldogs.
Roby finished with a game-high 28 points on 9-of-12 from the field (1-of-2 from 3) and 9-of-10 from the free-throw line with eight rebounds, two assists, two steals and a block.
“The coaches really challenged me to be aggressive,” Roby said. “They thought I had a really big mismatch and they just told me to be aggressive and take advantage of that, so that’s just what I did. My teammates got me in the right spots and obviously later on in the game everybody else started getting rolling too. It was a lot of fun.”
Senior James Palmer Jr. added 23 points on 7-of-19 from the field and 8-of-10 from the line while Glynn Watson Jr. chipped in 17 points on 4-of-8 from the field, 3-of-5 from 3 and 6-of-6 from the line with four assists and three rebounds. All three played the full 40 minutes.
The Huskers got strong contributions from their role players as well. Senior center Tanner Borchardt had six points, seven rebounds and a block while walk-on senior guard Johnny Trueblood chipped in six points, seven rebounds and five assists. Sophomore guard Thorir Thorbjarnarson did not score but he did chip in four assists, three boards and three steals.
Freshman big man Brady Heiman, who missed the last two days of practice with a back issue, went through warm-ups but did not play, leaving the Huskers with six participants for the second straight game.
Nebraska shot 50 percent from the field and 85.2 percent from the free-throw line, making up for a poor shooting game from the perimeter (5-of-16). The Bulldogs shot 45.6 percent from the field, 42.9 percent from 3 and 75 percent from the line. Butler hit seven more 3s but Nebraska made 11 more free-throws and outscored the Bulldogs 40-24 in the paint.
The Huskers had one of the largest crowds of the first round of the tournament, announced at 10,103.
“The crowd was amazing,” Miles said. “I thought there was great energy. PBA carries that energy well, too. Butler came out with a better edge than we did. We knew they could shoot the ball. I don’t know that tape does them justice. They’re faster than they look on tape. We kept telling our guys they’re a very fast team and they can turn you over also with those guards. They’ve got great length and quickness and they can really shoot it. Then all of a sudden you give up your first seven 3s or whatever and they’re like, ‘Oh, Coach, that’s what you meant.’ I thought that we warmed to the fight. I think we got it squared away by halftime, finally, but we couldn’t get over the edge for a long time. Really, that was kind of the motif the whole last five games, really.”
After trading buckets in the opening 90 seconds, Butler caught fire from deep, ripping off a 12-0 run with all the points coming from the 3-point line. Isaiah Roby, who had Nebraska’s first bucket, knocked down a corner 3 to snap the Huskers out of a 4-minute, 17-second scoring drought.
Nearly three minutes passed before the next point as Roby earned a trip to the free-throw line and hit both shots to make it 14-7 Butler. The Huskers went right back to Roby on the next possession and he scored inside with a jump hook.
After the under-12 media timeout, Butler knocked down a 3 to end Roby’s 7-0 run but the Huskers found him again on the other end and again he scored inside.
After Huskers not named Roby opened the game 0-for-8 from the field, Glynn Watson Jr. finally joined the party with a 3-pointer. After a stop, Nebraska went back to the Roby well and got another bucket, making it 19-16 Butler.
Palmer became the third Husker to enter the scoring column by splitting a pair of 3s to pull Nebraska within two but Butler answered with a 3 by Sean McDermott. Nebraska got the ball to Roby again and he got to the rim for the jam, then after a stop Watson hit a trailer 3 to tie the game at 22-22.
Butler knocked down its seventh 3 of the night then scored on a put-back to pull ahead 27-22 but Nebraska responded with a 9-0 run to take its first lead of the game on a layup by Palmer. Duke transfer Jordan Tucker hit a deep 3 for the Bulldogs but Roby answered emphatically with another dunk that got Pinnacle Bank Arena on its feet with about 30 seconds to play. Nebraska got a stop and pushed it up to Roby who was just off on a 3 at the buzzer, his first miss of the game.
“They came out hot and we came out kind of lackadaisical,” Roby said. “Like most games we come out slow, we weren’t doing the game plan, we were giving them easy stuff and they took advantage of everything we gave them. Later in the game we started to execute the game plan better.”
Roby had 17 points on 7-of-8 shooting, three rebounds, two assists, two steals and a handful of deflections in the first 20 minutes. The rest of the Huskers shot 4-of-21 from the field but Nebraska still led 31-30 at the break,
The Bulldogs shot 8-of-16 from 3 but only 3-of-9 inside the arc in the first half. Four different players hit at least one triple for Butler.
The game went back and forth throughout the second half with neither side truly able to grab control. The Huskers briefly managed to take a two-possession lead with a run capped by a Tanner Borchardt put-back (the first points of the game by a Huskers not named Roby, Palmer or Watson) but Butler scored seven straight to re-take the lead at 49-48.
After ties at 50-50 and 51-51, Nebraska pulled ahead with a 14-2 run featuring four points by Trueblood and a four-point possession. First, Trueblood drove to the rim for a reverse layup. Then on the next possession, he took it to the rim and finished through a foul. He missed the free-throw but Roby grabbed the board and drew a foul himself, hitting both. Soon after, Trueblood set Borchardt up for a layup to cap the run.
After a Butler foul, Borchardt got whistled for a technical. Lamar Baldwin split the free throws, then Watson hit both of his to give Nebraska a 66-64 lead.
McDermott answered with back-to-back 3s to cut the lead in half. Butler continued to chip away at the lead, pulling to within one after a three-point play by Tucker. Butler drew fouls on three straight possessions.
Roby drew a foul himself but only hit one of the freebies. Christian David misfired on a 3, however, and Palmer took it all the way for a layup to put the Huskers up by four. David scored inside with 50.2 to play and Butler called a timeout to set their defense.
After running a little clock, the Huskers got the ball to Roby and he drove the lane, passing out to Trueblood who attacked himself and gave it back to Roby for the short jumper with about 30 seconds to play.
Baldwin tried to attack but Trueblood cut him off and he lost the ball, allowing Watson to steal it and draw a foul on the break. He hit both free throws to push Nebraska’s lead to six and the Huskers held on for the win.
“Roby was tremendous,” Butler coach LaVall Jordan said. “He was a tough match — we knew that coming in. He worked inside agains the zone and against our man, he was a hard guy for us to match with. Then a couple of their other guys made big plays. Youngblood [Trueblood] had a couple really big plays in the second half. You kind of know the other three, but he stepped up and made a few big ones.”
After a quiet first half, Palmer came alive with 15 points on 5-of-9 from the field and 4-of-5 from the line in the final 20 minutes. As a team, the Huskers shot 65.2 percent from the field and 17-of-20 from the foul line while holding the Bulldogs to 4-of-12 from 3 after the hot-shooting first half.
During the game, staff members and student-athletes collected donations from the crowd for the American Red Cross to aid in flood relief. Nebraska announced the final total collected as $28,541 in the second half.
“First and foremost, the donation I heard was like 28-thousand-something and that’s awesome,” said Trueblood, a native Nebraskan out of Elkhorn South. “That really shows that Nebraskans stick together. That’s what we want to implement with our team. We’ve got six, seven guys so that’s what we’re trying to do.”
No. 1 seed TCU beat No. 8 seed Sam Houston State on the other side of the bracket, setting up a trip to Fort Worth, Texas, for the Huskers in round two. Tipoff is set for 8:30 p.m. CT on Sunday on ESPNU.
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.