On Wednesday, Coach Tim Miles described Penn State as a physical, relentless team that refused to go away. On Thursday, the Nittany Lions grabbed 21 offensive rebounds, got 12 points, 14 boards and three blocks from big man Mike Watkins and never trailed by more than two possessions.
Even so, the Huskers (12-4, 2-3 Big Ten) pulled out a 70-64 win over the Nittany Lions (7-9, 0-5) at Pinnacle Bank Arena, earning their school-record-tying 20th consecutive home win in front of an announced crowd of 15,753.
“I think the 20-game win streak at home is awesome,” Miles said. “We don’t talk about it at all really except that we’re not letting this team beat us at home. I think it’s a tribute to our fans and the environment that they provide, the energy, the game management, everybody like that and certainly our players. I think they do a really good job. Our defensive numbers had been really, really good at home, far better than anywhere else. I think they feed off that energy from the crowd. It might hurt us a little bit on the road when you don’t have the same but that’s something we just have to figure out.”
James Palmer Jr. and Isaac Copeland Jr. struggled all night and Glynn Watson Jr. didn’t get going until the second half, but junior forward Isaiah Roby picked up the slack and put the team on his back en route to his first double-double of the season and a new career-high for points.
Roby finished with 22 points on 8-of-9 from the field (2-of-3 from 3) and 4-of-5 from the free-throw line with 11 rebounds (five offensive), four blocks, two steals, and a assist and no turnovers in 38 minutes of action.
“He gave us a big spark,” Watson said. “He was active on defense and that helped our offense. He was just playing both sides, and he was big for us tonight.”
Watson scored 14 of his 19 points in the second half and finished 8-of-16 from the field with four boards, three assists and one turnover.
“Just my teammates — Johnny [Trueblood], Dachon [Burke] and all those guys — they just kept talking to me, telling me I can get going,” Watson said. “I’ve just got to make one and just stay confident. I listened to them and my teammates kept encouraging me so I just stayed positive and tried to do anything to help the team.”
Palmer shot 3-of-6 from deep but 0-6 inside the arc and finished with 11 points on 3-of-12 shooting, though he also led the team with four assists. Copeland missed all four of his triples, scoring eight points on 4-of-10 shooting. With others struggling to close the game out, Watson stepped up and made some big plays down the stretch including a tough reverse layup.
“I thought Glynn made just a great play because that’s a hard play to make when we needed it,” Miles said. “He got hit in the mouth right away — I don’t know if everybody saw that, but he had a lot of blood in his mouth — so he had a slow start, but I thought he really got better as the game wore on and you could see it in his numbers. I thought Roby was good the whole night. Tom Allen was good early.
“Those other two guys will get going. We went to Cope a little bit and it didn’t quite go. Cope’s the kind of guy that if Stevens is getting him when he’s playing defense on him, it affects him on the other end; it really does. He cares about winning. James, we’ve got to get him going a little bit more. I thought [Josh] Reaves is one of the best defensive players and makes life tough for everybody, and then Watkins at the rim, those are two strong defenders so they can make it hard for guys that live at the rim. Good effort tonight, glad we got the win.”
Though Nebraska gave up 21 offensive rebounds and lost the rebounding battle overall 46-32, the Huskers only gave up 17 second chance points. The Huskers held Penn State to 36.2 percent from the field including 7-of-24 (29.2 percent) from 3. Turnovers were even — 8-8 — but Nebraska was plus-five in points off those takeaways.
The Huskers shot 49.1 percent form the field including 39.1 percent from deep (9-of-23).
Nebraska got off to a sloppy start, turning the ball over win its first possession and three times before the first media timeout. The Huskers hit two triples but missed both of their shots inside the arc for a 6-6 tie at the under-16 break.
After the timeout, freshman guard Amir Harris checked in for the first time since the Minnesota game on Dec. 5. He’s missed the last month with mono. Harris made an immediate impact, grabbing a tough rebound on the defensive end then drawing a foul on a cut to the basket on offense, splitting the free throws.
Penn State pulled ahead 12-11 on a banked 3-pointer, but Palmer answered with his second 3-pointer of the game to take back the lead. Penn State put together a 7-0 run to surge ahead 19-14 before Roby answered with a bucket inside.
Penn State stayed hot, scoring five times in a six-possession stretch to maintain its lead at 24-21. After trading scores, Thomas Allen Jr. got into the mix, finishing a floater then knocking down a corner 3 in transition then finishing a fast break layup to give Nebraska a 30-26 lead.
Five straight by the Nittany Lions put Penn State ahead once again but Watson answered with a banked 3 of his own at the 1:47 mark. Neither side managed to score the rest of the half as the huskers took the 33-31 lead into the locker room.
The Huskers shot 6-of-11 from deep but only 7-of-16 inside the arc against Penn State’s tough interior defense led by center Mike Watkins. After the sloppy start, Nebraska only turned the ball over two times the rest of the half.
Roby did the heavy lifting in the first half, scoring 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting including 2-of-3 from deep.
Nebraska opened the second half with a stop and a bucket, but Penn State put together an 8-1 run including a pair of 3s by Reaves after the Huskers lost him on defense twice. After a timeout, Nebraska got the ball to Copeland in the short corner and he knocked down a jumper, then a minute later Palmer knocked down another 3 to put the Huskers up two. The teams went bucket for bucket over the next several minutes with four ties before an 8-3 run by Nebraska including three buckets by Roby put the Huskers up five with 8:53 to play.
Penn State cut it to one a few times, but Nebraska never relinquished the lead after that run. A layup by Watson put the Huskers up 62-57 with 5:26 to play, but the Huskers went ice cold from there. Nebraska went 3:10 without scoring, missing three shots and turning the ball over once. A 3-pointer by Reaves pulled Penn State within one at the 2:51 mark.
After a long possession and near turnover, Watson stepped back for a 3 right in front of the Nebraska bench late in the shot clock that hit every part of the rim and a bit of the backboard before falling through, and Reaves picked up his fourth foul with the ball in the air trying to secure rebounding position against Copeland.
“The first thing I thought was it was in, I really did,” Miles said. “Even though it hit the rim three or four times, it was just so soft. It was just one of those, ‘I think it’s going in.’ And then there was that ruckus. He had gotten knocked down and then Copland got knocked down under the basket, and it was just a ruckus, and the ball’s still on the rim. I really did think the ball was in; I was just trying to figure out what the heck was going on.”
That gave the ball back to the Husker, though Nebraska failed to capitalize with a missed 3-pointer, an offensive rebound and a shot-clock violation.
After a Penn State timeout, Roby picked up his fourth foul, though the Huskers had fouls to give at that point. After Penn State reset things, Roby stole a post entry pass. Watson went for the dagger with a quick pull-up jumper, but he put it well short and on the other end, the Nittany Lions took it to the rim again, and again Roby denied them with his fourth block of the game.
“That was huge,” Roby said. “We talked about defense pretty much 80 percent of our practice the last couple days because we know that we can score with anybody but in order to win, you have to play defense. Being able to finish the game this time and not blow our lead, that was huge for us.”
The Huskers shot 5-of-6 from the line down the stretch with Roby hitting the last four to seal the win.
“You can see why he’s such a special kid and a special player,” Miles said about Roby. “He was the one the guy that I thought had great energy, great body language and was aggressive the whole night through and you can see in his line — 22 points, 11 rebounds, four blocks, one assist, no turnovers — and then the last five or six minutes, we switch him onto [Lamar] Stevens, and I’m not sure if Stevens got another hoop, maybe one. Isaiah got a steal in that time and just made some really big plays for us on offense and defense.”
Miles did not make a single substitution in the second half, sticking with the starting five for the full 20 minutes after playing them for 84 of the 100 minutes in the first half.
“Nana Akenten had been sick the last two days so he missed all the prep, and Amir [Harris] is just starting to practice again full,” Miles said. “So I played them [in the first half]. I decided at halftime, ‘Well, I don’t love it.’ So I thought I’d play Tanner [Borchardt], but every time I brought it up those assistants talked me out of it.”
After the brief stop at home, the Huskers will hit the road once again for the fourth time in their first six Big Ten games as Nebraska travels to No. 22 Indiana on Monday.
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.