Nebraska tied its season-low in scoring on Tuesday night as an up-and-down Illinois team handed the Huskers a 76-50 loss at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
The win is the first time the Illini (11-5, 2-3 Big Ten) have put together two straight victories since late November.
Nebraska held Illinois to 27.6% from 3, but the Illini doubled up the Huskers in makes from the arc and the free-throw line and nearly equaled them in the paint as Nebraska shot 37% from the field.
The Huskers turned the ball over 17 times (leading to 16 Illinois points) and surrendered 13 offensive rebounds (leading to 17 second-chance points. With how poorly the Huskers have been shooting, giving the Illini a commanding win in possessions category doomed any chance for an upset.
“Obviously we got no flow going right now in the first half and tonight our movement, we just didn’t have any pop on that end,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said. “We talked about their physicality, and the two basics that we had to execute tonight to have a chance to win the game were taking care of the basketball and rebounding the ball and playing with physicality, and I thought they clearly were the better team in both those areas. When you don’t execute the basics of the game plan, you’re going to have trouble winning.”
Sam Griesel led Nebraska with 12 points, but he shot just 4-for-11 from the field and 4-for-9 from the foul line with four turnovers. Wilhelm Breidenbach added 11 points on 4-for-7 shooting (2-for-3) in 13 minutes off the bench. Foul trouble and Illinois’ interior defense held Derrick Walker to a season-low five points on 2-for-7 shooting in 19 minutes.
Illinois’ star guard, Terrance Shannon Jr., put up 25 points and 11 rebounds, one of five Illini in double figures.
Tuesday’s installment of Big Ten basketball after dark should have come with a warning label. The first points came at the 17:45 mark on a pair of Griesel red throws. The first field goal came at the 15:53 mark on a Shannon layup plus a foul (he missed the free throw). The first 3 (after seven straight misses, five by Illinois) came from Juwan Gary at the 14:03 mark to put Nebraska up 7-5.
Unfortunately, things got even worse for Nebraska at that point while Illinois figured its offense out at least a little bit. The Illini scored nine straight points as Nebraska went nearly five minutes without a point to open up a 14-7 lead.
Griesel finally ended the drought with a layup on a cut to the basket, then Keisei Tominaga scored to make it a one-possession game. Illinois scored four straight to pull ahead 20-13 and Nebraska cut it to five three different times as Griesel and Tominaga looked to keep the Huskers afloat.
However, Nebraska made one shot in the last 3:50 of the half — a corner 3 from freshman Jamarques Lawrence — and the Illini stretched their lead to 11 at 34-23 heading into halftime. Nebraska went 1-for-3 from the field and 0-for-2 from the line with two turnovers and three offensive rebounds surrendered in the final stretch of the half.
Griesel led Nebraska with nine points and six rebounds but missed four of his seven free throws. Tominaga added six points on 3-of-4 shooting, but the rest of the team combined for eight points on 3-for-15 from the field. Nebraska coupled its 36% shooting with 10 turnovers in the first 20 minutes.
Gary went down clutching his left shoulder in obvious pain with about two minutes to play in the half and did not return to the game. He previously left the win against Omaha with an injury to the same shoulder back on Nov. 10. Hoiberg said after the game that he would under more testing in the morning.
“Obviously he was in a lot of pain and, after being evaluated by the doctors, we felt the right move was to keep him out for the rest of the game and get more tests in the morning,” Hoiberg said. “So we’ll have an update, hopefully, on Juwan in the next 24 hours.”
Illinois went 4-for-16 from deep and shot 33.3% from the field overall, but Nebraska couldn’t take advantage. Shannon got loose for 17 points on 6-for-12 shooting incurring two of Illinois’ four triples.
The first half featured 24 fouls called and 19 total field goals.
The Huskers showed some signs of life out of the locker room, scoring the first six points of the half with a pair of tough reverse layups from Wilcher and a dunk from Emmanuel Bandoumel — his first shot attempt of the day after picking up two fouls and playing just 10 minutes in the first half — to cut the deficit to five.
Brad Underwood called a timeout to settle his team down and Coleman Hawkins buried a 3, sparking a 21-6 run including three 3-pointers to push the lead to 20 at 55-35 nine minutes into the half.
Breidenbach gave Nebraska one last chance to get back in the game, putting together a personal 11-2 run including two 3s, a driving three-point play and a stop-and-pop push shot to cut the deficit to 11 at 57-46 with just under eight minutes to play.
The 6-foot-10 sophomore has scored in double figures in three of his last six games after doing so just once in his first 21 games as a Husker.
“Just take what the defense gives me,” Breidenbach said. “Whatever I can do to help the team and give the team a better chance of winning is what I’ll do. It doesn’t necessarily have to be scoring, but if I’m scoring, then that is fine. If it’s rebounding, if it’s anything in between, that’s what I’ll do.”
A put-back plus a foul by Walker in transition made it a 10-point game, then Nebraska forced a turnover on the other end to earn a Chance to cut into the deficit further with six minutes to play.
Illinois dug in defensively, however, forcing a contested 3 late in the shot clock that didn’t fall, and Nebraska scored one point the rest of the way. The Illini closed the game on a 17-1 run including the final 13 points to take its largest lead at the final buzzer.
“I thought we cut very well to get it going,” Hoiberg said. “We talked in the locker room how we couldn’t play much worse and had guys out of the lineup with fouls and we were still in striking distance. Come out of the gate and make a run, which we did to cut it to five, but then they pushed it right back up. Wilhelm was a bright spot; it was good to see him get it going offensively … I think it was 10 with six and a half left and they went on a monumental run to finish it.”
Illinois shot nearly 60% from the field in the second half. Nebraska shot 37.9% with Breidenbach accounting for four of the team’s 11 field goals including both of its made 3s.
“We’ll learn from it and hopefully we’ll grow from it and get better from it,” Hoiberg said. “We’re going into the best team in the league’s gym, which is the hardest place to play in our league, and hopefully we respond well.”
Nebraska will now head to Mackey Arena on Friday for a rematch with No. 3 Purdue. The Boilermakers outlasted the Huskers in overtime in Lincoln back in December.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. 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.