Nebraska had a big opportunity on Tuesday night. A struggling Michigan team, the loser of four straight and eight of its last 12, came to the Vault down two of its three best players. For 27 minutes, it looked like the Huskers had enough to take advantage of Michigan’s misfortune to end their own losing streak at five games.
Then things spiraled out of control as the Wolverines hit Nebraska with a 21-4 run. Nebraska showed some signs of life late, but a couple more missed opportunities ended the comeback before it ever truly began as the Wolverines settled in for a 79-68 win.
“It's unfortunate because I thought we had a really good rhythm going and when we stopped it almost sucked the energy out of our group, and you’ve got to find a way to keep going, stay together, keep fighting together,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said. “At the end of the game, I think it was nine points, we got a steal and could have cut it to seven; it just shows you how that thing’s never over. You’ve got to keep together out there. When the possessions, the quality wasn’t as good, I thought that tore us apart a little bit tonight.”
Nebraska has dropped six straight — four on the road and two at home — and is 2-8 in Big Ten play. The Huskers have now played Rutgers, Northwestern, Iowa, Ohio State and Michigan minus key players, and they’ve won just one of those games.
The two recurring themes after losses during this 7-14 season have been putting together a full 40 minutes and responding to adversity, and the Huskers fell short in those areas again on Tuesday night.
However, Nebraska continues to show signs of potential and improvement despite the losses.
In the first half, Nebraska shot 50% from the field including 5-of-11 from 3. The Huskers played Michigan even in the paint with 18 points apiece and only gave up four second-chance points. Cam Mack was the best player out there for the 18 minutes he was on the floor. With three NBA scouts in the building, he put up 13 points on 5-of-7 from the field including 3-of-4 from deep, dished out five assists and grabbed four rebounds.
"I thought our flow was really good that got us that lead,” Hoiberg said. “We were scoring but we just had trouble getting stops so we couldn't extend it more. I thought the offense was creating some really good opportunities. Obviously when it was in Cam's hands we were getting a lot of good things accomplished.”
It was a one- or two-possession game for most of the first half, but Michigan did put together a 7-0 run to create a little separation at 38-30. The Huskers had a couple calls go against them that easily could have gone the other way and four of those points came at the foul line. Nebraska could have unraveled at that point, but instead Mack took control and righted the ship.
The sophomore hit a 3 off the dribble, then after a stop attacked early in the clock to create a two-for-one opportunity to end the half, drawing a foul. He missed both shots but rebounded the second one, leading to a 3-point attempt by Nebraska’s best shooter in Thorir Thorbjarnarson. The shot didn’t fall, and Nebraska gave up a put-back on the other end, but Hoiberg called for a timeout as soon as the ball went through the rim to stop the clock at 4.2.
The Huskers got the ball in to Mack and he went the length of the floor to bank in a floater at the buzzer to make it 40-35 at the break. Nebraska cut it to two a few different times before Michigan pushed its lead out to seven at 48-41. Again, Nebraska could have folded.
Instead, the Huskers ripped off an 11-2 run including seven points from freshman Kevin Cross Jr. as Nebraska took a 52-50 lead with just under 14 minutes to play.
Michigan made one more push, and this time the Huskers had no answer. The Wolverines outscored Nebraska 21-4 over the next eight minutes to build up a 15-point lead and he Huskers got no closer than nine points the rest of the way.
“I felt like the ball just didn’t move, and we got a little stagnant and our defensive intensity didn’t pick up when we weren’t scoring,” Mack said. “I just feel like it was a lot of things. We just have to go back and watch film.”
Nebraska shot 1-of-12 from the field, 1-of-7 from 3 and 1-of-2 from the free-throw line with a turnover during that Michigan run. Five different players attempted a shot with Mack accounting for the only make, a 3-pointer. Thorbjarnarson had the other point at the foul line.
With just over nine-and-a-half minutes to go and Nebraska down by six, freshman Yvan Ouedraogo decided to take a 15-foot jumper off the dribble and missed the basket by a foot or two. With Cross in foul trouble, Hoiberg immediately sent freshman forward Akol Arop (6-foot-6, 190 pounds) in to replace Ouedraogo. That sequence captured the essence of Nebraska’s offense during that stretch.
Haanif Cheatham tried to spark Nebraska late with four straight points to end the run, but a couple of missed layups, another shot at the rim that got blocked and a turnover cut the comeback short despite Thorbjarnarson hitting a 3 in that stretch.
Mack finished with 19 points on 7-of-14 shooting including a career-high five 3s on seven attempts, nine assists, seven turnovers and a steal in 38 minutes. Cross scored 17 points on 6-of-11 shooting for the second time in three games and Cheatham matched him with 17 points on 7-of-11 shooting, his highest Big Ten total since he had 21 in the conference opener at Indiana on Dec. 13. However, those three combined to shoot 1-of-8 from the field during Indiana’s deciding run.
Michigan coach Juwan Howard suspended starting point guard Zavier Simpson for the game and second-leading scorer Isaiah Livers, a 50% 3-point shooter, missed the game with an aggravated groin injury. Eli Brooks, Michigan’s best healthy shooter, led all scorers with 20 points and 4-of-10 shooting from deep. Franz Wagner (6-foot-9) had 18 points and eight rebounds and Brandon Johns Jr. (6-foot-8), starting in place of Livers, chipped in 16 points and seven boards. Jon Teske (7-foot-1) added nine points and eight boards. Michigan outscored Nebraska 20-10 in the paint in the second half.
“The looks that we were getting were based on movement, player movement and ball movement, and when we stopped doing that and stopped getting the ball in the right guys’ hands, the quality of possessions weren't as good,” Hoiberg said. “That's when they went on their run and that’s when they started controlling the tempo and that’s when their size took over. They started getting the ball inside. That was their advantage tonight was in the paint, not only with Teske but on the wings as well with Wagner and with their other guys.”
Michigan shot 50% from the field but only 29.2% from 3 and 66.7% from the foul line (16-of-24). The Huskers shot under 40% from the field in the second half and finished at 44.1%, though they did shoot 42.9% (9-of-21) from 3. Nebraska made just seven of its 12 free-throw attempts.
Nebraska will get another chance to ends its losing streak at home on Saturday as Penn State visits Lincoln. Tipoff is set for 6 p.m. CT on BTN.
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.