Prior to Thursday’s win against Michigan, the Wolverines had shot better than 40 percent from 3-point range in five straight meetings with the Huskers, and they were at 50 percent or better in each of the last three.
It’s not a coincidence that Nebraska had not beaten the Wolverines since entering the conference. Michigan’s five-out offense with shooters all over the floor had confounded the Huskers time and time again.
That wasn’t the case on Thursday, however. Nebraska held Michigan to 4-of-18 from deep. That’s a season-low in both makes and percentage (22.2), and it’s the second lowest total of attempts.
“You couldn’t let them get open 3s,” Coach Tim Miles said. “There were a lot of times where it seemed like it got to be down in the clock, the shot clock 12, 11, 10, and it became isolation and try to drive and beat us off the drive and we got a couple raids in early for steals … Almost no team can beat you exclusively from two. So if we could keep them off the 3-point line and off the foul line, we thought we had a good chance.”
In Michigan’s pair of wins over Nebraska last season, the 6-foot-11 Moritz Wagner shot a combined 7-of-10 from 3. On Thursday, Nebraska held the Wagner to just one attempt — a miss which came with 8:06 left in the game and Michigan down 14 (on the following possession, junior guard James Palmer Jr. buried a 3-point attempt of his own that served as an early dagger).
“You’ve got to get to Wagner — he’s really good, he’s a pro,” Miles said.
It was just the third time all season Wagner had only attempted one triple in a game as he was averaging 3.7 while shooting 42.4 percent. The Huskers switched every ball screen and chased him off the line every time he caught the ball on the perimeter. Wagner did aggressively attack the closeout and blow by for a dunk one time, but that proved to be his only points of the game as the Huskers confounded the big German to the point where the student section was openly mocking him with chants.
As Miles also mentioned, the free-throw line was a big key as well. The Huskers held Michigan to 10 attempts from the foul line and they only made six of them. Both the attempts and the makes were tied for the second-lowest of the season for Michigan. On the other end, Nebraska shot 15-of-23 — not a great percentage at 65.2, but it got the job done.
As for scoring inside the arc, Nebraska won that battle as well. The Wolverines shot 17-of-38 (44.7 percent) while the Huskers shot 21-of-36 (58.3 percent).
So to recap, Nebraska out-scored Michigan by three from 3-point range, by nine from the foul line and by eight inside the arc. That is the anatomy of a 20-point beatdown.
Nebraska’s impressive defensive performance extended beyond just facing tough shots, however. The Huskers also forced 12 turnovers (including nine in the first half) and outscored the Wolverines 11-3 in points off turnovers, which could have been an even bigger disparity. Nine of those turnovers by Michigan were steals for the Huskers, which usually leads to an opportunity for a run-out and an easy basket. Miles said decision-making in the open court is something the Huskers still need to improve.
“We turned them over, which I didn’t expect to do but then we did,” Miles said. “That boded well for our offense and of course I thought, allowed us to play with a lead and get a little more confident.”
Miles was caught off-guard by Nebraska’s success forcing turnovers because the Wolverines were 15th in the country and first in the conference in ball security, averaging less than 10 giveaways per game.
The one area in which the Wolverines had success was on the offensive glass, where they snagged 14 boards led by Charles Matthews’ five. That’s twice the number for the Huskers as seven different players each grabbed an offensive rebound. Even so, Michigan only won the second-chance points battle 16-12 as Nebraska’s defense remained strong even after failing to secure a board the first time around.
Thursday’s win included several big-time performances, but Miles made sure to give a shout-out to one player in particular even though he only scored five points on 2-of-5 shooting.
“We got very good contributions out of our two four men, Isaiah [Roby] and Isaac [Copeland]. Glynn [Watson Jr.] did a very good job. Palmer was super. But Evan Taylor, since he’s gone to the bench, was really critical tonight He made some plays early with some steals and a hustle play, diving, getting into a play that was outstanding.”
Taylor has been terrific since moving to the bench, a big development for the Huskers after he had struggled mightily in Nebraska’s first six Big Ten games as a starter. In Monday’s win against Illinois, Taylor put up 13 points and on Thursday, he was all over the court with three steals, a block and a team-high seven rebounds. Taylor finished plus-23 in his 27 minutes and really set the tone with his hustle.
Put all of that together and you have Nebraska’s most complete win of the season, the best win for the Huskers in the two-and-a-half years I’ve been covering this program.
Now, Nebraska has to hope they can take all of that on the road as the Huskers have a date with an Ohio State team that is unbeaten in conference play and ranked 22nd in both major polls under new coach Chris Holtmann. If the Huskers can pull off another upset, a trip to the Big Dance suddenly looks like more than a long shot.
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.