Run it Back: Northwestern
Photo Credit: Aaron Babcock

Run it Back: Northwestern

January 09, 2017

Nebraska’s hot streak finally came to an end on Sunday as the Northwestern Wildcats went into Pinnacle Bank Arena and came out with a win for the second straight season, handing the Huskers their first Big Ten loss.

The loss is disappointing for Huskers fans, but it shouldn’t have come as all that much of a surprise. Northwestern is a team on the rise and very well could make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history this season.

Nebraska got enough production to win out of some of its supporting players. Michael Jacobson had a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds, Tim Miles dusted off Jack McVeigh and got a pair of 3-pointers out of him and Evan Taylor scored a season-high 11 points with four assists and three turnovers.

I wrote more on Jacobson and how well he’s been playing to open the Big Ten season in a hoops notebook for the next issue of the magazine, so make sure you check that out. To sum it up, however, Jacobson has been a beast on the offensive glass and has found his shooting touch from mid-range, and its paying dividends for Nebraska.

Jeriah Horne is a freshman, and he played like it on Sunday. Horne forced up a bad 3-pointer that he missed and made a couple of mistakes on the defensive end, and Miles decided to go a different direction as Horne only played seven minutes. Miles threw McVeigh into the fire.

McVeigh had struggled mightily and had fallen out of the rotation. If you look at only his games against Sacramento State, Mary, Louisiana Tech and South Dakota, McVeigh shot 14-of-28 from 3. In all his other games prior to Sunday, McVeigh had hit just four of his 33 attempts and had picked up a DNP-CD at Indiana. But Miles gave him a chance and he hit his first look, a 3-pointer that sparked a 14-0 Nebraska run to end the half. McVeigh shot 2-of-3 from deep in 12 minutes against the Wildcats.

“You can see readiness, so we decided to let Jack have a crack,” Miles said. “Jack came in, hit some buckets, did a good job defensively. We’ll go back to Jeriah. He’ll get his chances, but he’s got to be ready. He’s got to earn his minutes just like anybody else.”

At this point, there isn’t room in the rotation for both McVeigh and Horne to see significant playing time, but as long as one of them is playing well, the Huskers will have a chance to compete.

As for Taylor, I also wrote about him in the notebook for the new issue. Taylor’s success had a lot to do with him finding his shooting touch. Taylor opened up the game 3-of-3 all on mid-range pull-up jumpers, which appears to be a shot he is becoming comfortable with. Taylor shot 4-of-6 on the shots in the game and also stepped out to the corner and knocked down a 3-pointer, his first as a Husker after missing his previous five attempts.

Mix in an improving jumper with his usually slashing and defensive contributions and Taylor is gradually growing from just a guy to a valuable contributor for the Huskers, which is important in the wake of the Anton Gill injury.

But it doesn’t really matter how well the role players play if Nebraska’s don’t show up, and Tai Webster was just OK while Glynn Watson Jr. was a no-show. Webster finished with 17 points on 5-of-14 shooting with three assists to three turnovers in 38 minutes. Watson had just six points on 2-11 shooting with three assists in 34 minutes.

“You have to try to take away their layups,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins said. “They are so fast and they are such strong drivers you have to try to eliminate the layups and do your best on the tendencies to make them take shots. They are going to get shots off because they’re good. So can you make them take the shots you would like them to take, and not the shots they would like to get?”

Webster and Watson took the shots Northwestern wanted them to take on Sunday, They scored 23 points on 25 shots and only added six assists between them. That’s not going to get it done.

Nebraska benefitted from uncharacteristically good 3-point shooting in two of their first three Big Ten wins, and because of that Watson and Webster had more space to do what they do best. Nebraska struggled to hit shots against Maryland, but Maryland’s defense didn’t take advantage of that for whatever reason. That wasn’t the case for Northwestern.

Nebraska missed its first six 3-point attempts, and Northwestern had two guys ready to cut off the paint on every pick-and-roll or dribble hand-off. The gaps weren’t there for Webster and Watson to create good opportunities. Big Ten teams should and likely will copy that game plan. Nebraska is going to have to find a way to adjust, and the solution isn’t hoping Watson shoots 7-of-8 or Horne shoots 6-of-8 from 3.

But Nebraska scored 66 points against Northwestern, and 67 was enough to win at Maryland. The bigger problem was the defense. Miles threw out the “Blackshirt defense” after that game as the Huskers had worn alternate black jerseys against the Terrapins and held them to 65 points. There weren’t any Blackshirts on the floor against the Wildcats.

Northwestern shot 51 percent from the field, 45.8 percent from 3-point range and 92.9 percent from the free-throw line. It’s going to be tough for any team to keep up with that kind of offensive efficiency. Nebraska routinely helped off of shooters unnecessarily or missed rotations on the perimeter and the result was 11 3-pointers for the Wildcats, most of them wide open.

All that being said, Nebraska suffered an eight-point loss while struggling on both offense and defense, which speaks to the toughness that this team has displayed much of the season. Nothing illustrates that fight more than the 14-0 run during the final 102 seconds of the first half.

Down by 10, McVeigh checked in and hit his first 3-pointer since Dec. 18. Webster followed it up with a steal and then took the ball all the way for a three-point play. Switching to the 1-3-1 defense that helped the Huskers come back to win at Maryland, freshman Isaiah Roby picked off a pass on then got the ball back and hit a 3-pointer, just his second of the season. Northwestern finally got a shot off on its next possession, but it was a brick and Webster grabbed the rebound and took it all the way for another layup. Taylor got another steal and passed the ball ahead to Webster, who took it himself and puled up from the top of the key at the buzzer to complete the run.

That run was one of the craziest sequences I’ve seen in a basketball game. It’s a shame it won’t get the recognition it deserves because it didn’t ultimately lead to a win.

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