Protecting Pinnacle Bank Arena was one of Nebraska’s primary goals this year after going .500 at home last season, and 17 games later the Huskers are one bucket shy of a perfect record at the Vault.
Nebraska (22-9) completed a 16-1 record in Lincoln on Sunday with a 76-64 win as 15,539 fans saw Nebraska finish 13-5 in the Big Ten (a school record for conference wins) and secure the No. 4 seed in the Big Ten Tournament thanks to the head-to-head tie-breaker with Michigan.
“It’s a great place. It’s so much energy, it’s got such a good vibe to it when you walk in there,” Coach Tim Miles said. “There’s nothing like walking through that tunnel and coming out to that crowd when they get going. I think that our players love it, I think the fan support allows our players to play better and I’m glad we were able to treat the fans to some successful basketball this year.”
Junior Isaac Copeland recorded his third double-double of the season with a team-high 17 points on 6-of-10 shooting as well as 12 rebounds and four assists (both game-highs). Sophomore Isaiah Roby, who played after suffering through a bout of food poisoning, finished with 13 points on 5-of-6 shooting, seven rebounds and three assists.
James Palmer Jr., who scored a season-low five points in Nebraska’s overtime loss at Penn State in January, struggled again, totaling just 11 points on 5-of-12 shooting with six turnovers. However, junior Glynn Watson Jr. picked up some of the slack with 11 points of his own on 4-of-8 shooting to go with five rebounds and three assists. Watson shot 50 percent from the field or better for the first time since Nebraska’s last-second loss against Kansas on Dec. 16.
Penn State was without its best rim protector and rebounder in sophomore center Mike Watkins, and the Huskers took advantage of his absence by attacking the basket without fear all game. Nebraska scored 46 points in the paint and 22 second-chance points.
Nebraska honored its four seniors prior to the game and Miles also inserted Evan Taylor and Duby Okeke into the starting lineup as well in place of Watson and Roby.
“Senior night, a lot of emotions, a lot riding on this game,” Penn State Coach Pat Chambers said. “Give Tim and Nebraska credit, they’ve been playing really good basketball over the last month and they came out and punched us in the mouth.”
Stifling Nebraska defense combined with bumbling offensive play by Penn State resulted in a first half that was far from pretty but fairly dominant for the Huskers.
Okeke, getting just his second start as a Husker, won the tip and 14 seconds later Copeland was at the rim throwing down a hammer slam. Copeland went on to score Nebraska’s first seven points as the Huskers jumped out to a 7-2 lead.
Copeland said his mindset was to “just do what I can to set the tone. Last time we played them, they kind of got a good lead on us. I was pretty upset about that last game so I just wanted to come with some energy and make some plays."
Penn State countered with a 5-1 run by Tony Carr to cut the deficit to one before Nebraska clamped down, ripping off an 11-0 run while holding the Nittany Lions scoreless for nearly five-and-a-half minutes.
Sophomore center Jordy Tshimanga, who did not play in Nebraska’s first meeting with Penn State, came out in attack mode as Nebraska pounded the ball inside and Tshimanga produced six quick points on his first three touches.
"He’s been working,” Taylor said. “Before practice he gets work in every day. People don’t know that, but he puts in a lot of hard work. He goes to that right shoulder, left-handed hook shot.”
Tshimanga’s best look of the day came later in the half as he was left all alone in the paint, but the 6-foot-11 sophomore’s dunk attempt bounced hard off the back of the rim out to Copeland. He swung it to Palmer and Palmer went right back inside to Tshimanga, who chose to lay it in the second time.
“He did miss a dunk though today, I didn’t know he was going to miss a dunk,” Taylor continued. “He made up for it, that’s all that matters. I guess he was too open.”
Sophomore Lamar Stevens ended the drought with a 3-pointer to make it 19-10 Nebraska, but that was as close as the Nittany Lions would get the rest of the way. Nebraska continued to expand the lead, building it up to as much as 17 at halftime as Nebraska had the Nittany Lions doubled up 34-17 at the half.
The 17 points Penn State scored were the fewest in a half for a Nebraska opponent this season as well as a season-low for the Nittany Lions. Penn State shot 7-of-27 from the field and turned the ball over 11 times in the first half.
“[Assistant coach] Jim Molinari had a great game plan,” Miles said. “To hold them to 17 points… He and I had met a couple of times and I thought we had the right idea. The only time they got 3s was when I was jacking around going zone and doing some other stuff, just trying to get them off driving downhill … I thought our defensive effort was really impressive.”
Nebraska only shot 43.8 percent from the field (including 1-of-4 from deep) and 5-of-9 from the foul line, but that was more than enough when coupled with Nebraska’s defensive performance.
Copeland and Tshimanga together outscored Penn State in the first 20 minutes, totaling 18 points on 8-of-12 shooting, and they each grabbed four rebounds as well.
Penn State threw some pressure at the Huskers to open the second half and Nebraska turned the ball over on three of its first four possessions. Penn State scored the first five points of the half to cut its deficit to 12.
Nebraska settled down and responded with a 7-0 run capped by a reverse dunk by Palmer to push the lead back to 19, but Palmer was assessed a technical after the dunk. Penn State converted the technical free throws and scored again after another Nebraska turnover. The teams traded free throws before a 6-0 run capped by a 3-pointer by senior Anton Gill gave Nebraska it’s biggest lead of the game at 49-28.
Penn State didn’t go away quietly, cutting it to 15 again, then 14, then 13 with just over 9 to play. Nebraska had an answer every time, however. Penn State pulled within 12 six different times in the final five minutes, including inside the last 10 seconds, but the Nittany Lions never got over that hump and Nebraska held on for the win.
With the game well in-hand in the final minute, Miles was able to get his fourth senior, walk-on Malcolm Laws, onto the floor as well.
Taylor, a team captain who came to Nebraska via the junior college ranks, finished with seven points, six rebounds, three assists and two steals, and he was a game-high plus-15.
"It was crazy,” Taylor said about his final regular season game at Pinnacle Bank Arena. “My teammates kept saying I would be the one out of the seniors that would cry. I was like ‘nah,’ but then it hit me when I was standing in the tunnel before the game and I was a little emotional. It’s been a journey. God always puts us where we are supposed to be at the perfect time. My two years at Nebraska came at the perfect time. I wish it could have been four years here, but I am glad that the whole community accepted me and we were able to finish strong."
Sophomore point guard Tony Carr scored 19 of his game-high 27 points in the second half but he shot just 7-of-23 from the field and had three turnovers to one assist. Stevens added 13 points and senior Shep Garner chipped in 11. Penn State shot over 50 percent form the field in the second half, but Nebraska shot even better to hold on for the win.
“I’m happy that our Senior Night turned out well for our seniors,” Miles said. “It’s an eclectic group of young guys that have been great to coach, have stuck with us through thick and thin. So this is a very important night, a historic night from what I’m hearing. So I’m just really proud of these guys to have that, at least, accomplished. Now certainly we have more goals and we want to go a lot farther, but I’m just happy that this night they can enjoy that and put that in their back pockets.”
Next up for the Huskers is a trip to New York City. As the No. 4 seed, Nebraska secured a double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament which is set to begin on Wednesday. The Huskers’ first game at Madison Square Garden will be Friday afternoon.
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.