With a 15-point lead and 15 minutes to go, Nebraska looked to be well on its way to a fourth straight win on Wednesday evening.
However, the Huskers’ offense ground to a halt, the defensive effort waned and the 12th-seeded Wildcats rallied to beat No. 13 Nebraska 71-69 in the first game of the Big Ten Tournament.
“Congratulations to Northwestern,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said. “They hung in there, stuck around after a brilliant first half by our team as we continued to play well and build on what we’ve done the last three games. Couldn’t have been prouder of our guys the way they finished the season after facing so much adversity over the course of the year and just kept battling and coming in. Behind the scenes, what you don’t see is preparing, continuing to learn and continuing to grow. We played our best basketball this season.
“Unfortunately we had a horrible lull there in the second half where we allowed Northwestern to get comfortable. I thought our defensive energy was the best it’s been maybe all year in the first half and we built that lead. We had a couple possessions I thought where we could have pushed it up even higher and they came out and really threw the first punch in the second half and got the momentum going. I think they hit nine of their first 10, so take your hat off to Northwestern for continuing to grind and continuing to play.”
Alonzo Verge Jr. finished with a game-high 21 points and nine assists while tying for the Nebraska lead with seven rebounds. Derrick Walker matched his career-high of 16 points, shooting 4-of-5 from the field and 8-of-9 from the line, but it wasn’t enough to fend off the Wildcats down the stretch.
Nebraska shot 43.1% from the field including 3-of-15 from deep as the team fell into old bad habits in the second half when adversity hit.
Bryce McGowens played after missing the regular season finale but struggled with his shot, scoring six points on 2-of-10 shooting.
“I did think his timing was a little bit off and then he has a couple shots that are right there in and out, that if those go down, it might have been a completely different outcome,” Hoiberg said about McGowens. “But I appreciate Bryce going out with an injured wrist and giving it a go tonight … I’m proud of him for going out there and giving it a go without getting a lot of reps in practice this past week.”
Northwestern only shot 40.7% from the field but hit 10 3-pointers to offset Nebraska’s edge in the paint and from the free-throw line. After turning the ball over left and right in the first half, the Wildcats took much better care of the ball in the second and scored 46 points as a result. Pete Nance did a bit of everything with 14 points, eight rebounds and eight assists.
The teams traded runs early as Nebraska struck first while Northwestern misfired on four straight 3s to open the game. The triples finally started to fall as Northwestern took a 13-10 lead, but the success was short-lived.
Nebraska used a 7-0 run to retake the lead, then pushed the advantage to seven as the Wildcats continued to turn the ball over at a high rate. Nebraska scored 18 points in the paint before the under-8 timeout.
Nance scored for the Wildcats to make it a five-point game, but Lat Mayen responded with a tip-in. He lost his balance as he scored and hit the floor, and Nance fell on top of him on the head and neck area. Mayen checked out to get looked at and sat the rest of the half.
The tip-in triggered a 10-0 run, however, as Trey McGowens put the Huskers ahead 35-20 with a three-point play at the final media timeout. Elyjah Williams ended a nearly four-minute scoring drought with a 3, but Nebraska scored four of the final six points including a tough finish with three seconds left by Verge to push the lead to 39-25 at the break.
“We continued to build off how we’ve been playing lately,” Hoiberg said. “I talked about this yesterday, going back to the Iowa game where I thought we played really good basketball and we get rewarded by winning three games in a row, playing the right way, and that carried over into tonight’s game. I just thought the swagger and the energy we were playing with was exactly where we needed it.”
The Huskers went 1-for-7 from deep but shot 51.7% overall and scored 28 points in the paint. Nebraska converted 10 Northwestern turnovers not 12 points on the other end and held the Wildcats to 27.6% from the field.
Walker put up a game-high 11 points while Verge added nine points, five rebounds and five assists.
Mayen was back on the floor to start the second half. Northwestern hit a couple of 3s early to cut the lead down to eight two minutes in, but the Huskers responded with a 9-2 run capped by a 3 from Indianapolis native Kobe Webster to push the lead back to 15.
The offense dried up after that, however, as Northwestern hit Nebraska with a 14-0 run in less than three minutes to cut the deficit all the way down to one. Verge finally ended the scoring drought with a runner in the paint, but the damage was done. The cushion disappeared and the Huskers found themselves in another close game late.
The Huskers held the Wildcats off for a while, but Northwestern finally pulled ahead with 3s on back-to-back possessions. The lead exchanged hands two more times, then Boo Buie hit a 3 to give Northwestern a four-point edge with less than two minutes to play.
A tough bucket from Bryce McGowens cut it in half, then the Huskers forced a turnover and Verge earned a trip to the foul line on the other end, hitting both shots to tie it up with one minute to play.
After running 20 seconds off the clock, Chase Audige misfired on a jumper, but Nebraska failed to secure the board and Northwestern earned a new 20 on the shot clock. They ran some more time then Audige attacked the basket, drawing a blocking foul on Walker to foul him out of the game with 18.1 to play. Audige split the free throws, then Verge tried to get downhill and turned the ball over on a. Charge with 10.5 to play. This time Nebraska put Buie at the line, and he also only made one of the shots.
With one last shot to tie or take the lead, the Huskers got the ball ahead to Trey McGowens, but he also put his head down and attacked a couple of defenders, and Robbie Beran blocked his shot in the paint to run out the clock.
“We just didn’t execute well enough in the end,” Hoiberg said. “We went too quick on the one, and that last one obviously with seven seconds left after the miss, we had a play to run up and we didn’t get to it.”
The Huskers scored just six points in the paint in the second half after having so much success in the first. Nebraska shot 31.8% from the field in the second half while Northwestern found a groove and cleared 50% including 6-of-11 from 3. The Wildcats grabbed seven offensive boards in the second half, none more important than the final one.
“We could have boxed out better,” Walker said. “We could have rebounded better, including me. My man got a few offensive rebounds and I take that very personally. We could have just stuck to what we were doing. Coach told us before the game, if they win the rebound battle, they’re going to win; if we win it, we’re going to win. I don’t know what the rebounding number was, but the second half they really started to crash the boards a lot more and we didn’t rebound it as we were supposed to.”
Northwestern will move on to face No. 5 seed Iowa on Thursday. With the loss, Nebraska’s season has come to an end at 10-22.
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.