Nebraska had no business being in a tight game with Illinois for the second straight time. The Huskers made a run early in the second half to take a 52-47 lead and had all the momentum on their side.
What followed was five-and-a-half minutes of scoreless basketball. Instead of pulling away Nebraska let Illinois right back into the game and the result was a battle down to the wire.
Tim Miles said he didn’t even bother showing the first 35 minutes or so of the game to the team in film review; he was focused on the final five-and-a-half. What that tape showed is bad decisions and missed opportunities.
With three minutes to play, Nebraska and Illinois were tied up at 63 apiece following a split pair of free-throws by Isaiah Roby. On the following possession, Illinois got the ball inside to its best player in Leron Black posted up on Roby. Black put up a shot over Roby’s out-stretched arms that bounced off the rim, but Black read the miss and followed it right back up for a put-back to take the lead.
On the other end, Nebraska put the ball in James Palmer Jr.’s hands and Palmer delivered, attacking the basket, drawing three defenders and dumping it off to Isaac Copeland. Copeland was fouled but failed to convert, and instead of a go-ahead and-one, he split the free throws to make it 65-64 Illinois.
Illinois fed Black again in the mid-post and he nailed a fadeaway jumper to make it 67-64 with two to play.
On the other end, Nebraska gave it to Palmer again on the left wing and Roby tried to set a screen for him. Palmer refused the screen and dribbled up the sideline, but Roby’s man, Black, doubled over hard while his primary defender trapped from the top. Rather than giving up the ball, Palmer tried a fake spin back then tried to dribble further up the sideline, but Illinois didn’t fall for it. Meanwhile, Trent Frazier slid over to take away the next pass (Roby) and Mark Smith played in the middle on the back side. With nowhere to go, Palmer picked the ball up.
With Smith playing monkey-in-the-middle, Palmer probably had the skip to Glynn Watson Jr. at the top. However, the trap made it tough for him to see Watson and he didn’t make that pass, instead holding onto it. He saw Evan Taylor on the backside start to cut and tried to make the pass, but hit the rim and it bounced out of bounds.
Nebraska had two timeouts still to use, but the play went down as a turnover. Illinois still led by three with possession and 1:36 on the clock. That was the first big mental error by the Huskers.
Fortunately, Illinois responded with a poor decision of its own as Smith, a freshman, launched a contested 3 with 14 on the shot clock. He missed badly and the rebound bounced to Roby what pushed it up to Watson.
Watson, who was 1-for-8 from the field and 1-for-4 from deep, sprinted up the court and with 1:12 still remaining, he pulled up with all of his momentum behind him and shot a leaning 3-pointer that bricked hard off the rim. He had Copeland (3-of-5 from 3 at that point) open in the corner.
Te’Jon Lucas grabbed the rebound and Nebraska fouled him with 1:08 to go, but he missed the front end of the bonus. Illinois let its second chance to slam the door closed on Nebraska slip through its fingers.
Copeland grabbed the rebound and hit Palmer with the outlet pass. Palmer, dangerous in transition, pushed it ahead himself, put his head down and drove into the paint. The only problem was Illinois had three defenders in the paint and a fourth rotating down as Palmer threw up a prayer over the top of them.
The shot didn’t fall, but Palmer had attracted so much attention that the trailing Copeland got a free run to the basket and grabbed the rebound. He put it back up off the glass from point-blank range … and it rimmed out. That rebound bounced out of bounds off Nebraska with 59 seconds to play.
Nebraska chose to play the following defensive possession out in its 1-3-1 defense, and Illinois ran down the clock before kicking it to Frazier for a corner 3. He missed, but the downside of a zone is that it often makes it tough to rebound. Evan Taylor dropped down on the back side like he was supposed to and boxed one guy out, but another Illini crashed from that side and knocked the ball out of Taylor’s hands and it bounced out off Watson with 31 seconds left.
At that point, Nebraska had to foul and Watson put Frazier at the line with 25 seconds left. He made the first but missed the second to make it 68-64, and Roby made the outlet pass to Palmer who pushed it ahead again but this time found a lane all the way to the rim and scored in just five seconds.
Nebraska pressed on the ensuing rebound, and it looked like they had a chance to set a trap and perhaps force a turnover or at least force Illinois to take its last timeout.
However, Taylor fouled immediately instead and sent Frazier back to the line with 18 seconds left. This time he hit both to push it back to four at 70-66.
Down four with 10 seconds to play, Copeland fired up a 3 that didn’t fall, for all intents and purposes sealing Illinois’ victory.
Defensive breakdowns through the first half and poor shot selection throughout the game put Nebraska in position to have to win a close game in the final three minutes. Illinois made plays to take the lead and Nebraska failed to respond. Illinois gave Nebraska multiple chances to get back into it and again, the Huskers failed to capitalize.
Nebraska cannot afford any more slip-ups like this. There is a very high probability that Nebraska is going to find itself in a close game in the closing moments of these last two regular season games and in the Big Ten Tournament. Whether or not they learned from this Illinois loss might determine Nebraska's postseason fate.
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.