Basketball is a fickle game.
You can do everything right up until the shot, but if the ball doesn’t go through the net, it doesn’t really matter.
Nebraska had a great defensive game plan. The Huskers were in the passing lanes and rotating at the rim all night, getting deflections and steals and blocks. They got suckered into some quick, ill-advised shots in spurts, but they got a lot of good looks as well. After the first game, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo credited Fred Hoiberg for the Huskers’ game plan and effort in the first half.
Nebraska’s scrappiness kept the Huskers in the game all throughout the first half and into the second half as well, but Michigan State got hot and Nebraska did the exact opposite as an 11-1 Michigan State run gave the Spartans their first double-digit lead of the game.
Nebraska missed its first seven 3-point attempts and five of its first seven layup attempts in the second half. The Huskers briefly cut it to seven when Kevin Cross Jr. finally hit one from deep and then Jervay Green hit one from NBA range soon after, but a 9-0 Spartan run sparked by back-to-back 3s pushed the lead back to 16 and Michigan State cruised to an 86-65 win from there.
“It’s kind of the same ol’ story for us,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said. “We played with tons of energy in the first half. The things we needed to do after that first initial wave, we did the rest of the half and that allowed us to be right in there. They hit a 3 to give them a lead right before halftime, but I thought we played with incredible energy and togetherness. We got the ball in the right guy’s hands. Burke obviously had it going.
“In the second half, we came out and had three 3s hit every part of the rim and bounce out, then we miss two layups, and we’re done. It’s just kind of that same thing. We struggled to convert on those good looks or easy shots at the basket and we struggle to recover from that. Then we start pressing and have bad possessions, then we don’t get back in transition. We’re trying to chase it down and get it all back at once. I think we did cut it back to seven, then they hit a 3, we turned it over, then they hit another 3 to push it up to 13, and we never threatened after that.”
Nebraska scored 29 points in the second half, shooting 9-of-32 from the field including 3-of-18 from 3. The Huskers had four or five 3s rim out early in the half and things fell apart from there. The Spartans shot just over 60% from the field.
"I don't really know what the difference was, it's been like maybe seven games when we are coming back in the second half not with the same energy and not with the same pace,” said freshman Yvan Ouedraogo, who returned to the starting lineup after coming off the bench the previous two games and finished with 10 points and seven rebounds. “We just keep going, but when we have a bad stretch, we just stop playing, and that's maybe the problem. We've got to figure it out."
Jack Hoiberg, a sophomore walk-on for Michigan State and son of Fred Hoiberg, made his first career start and finished with four points in five minutes thanks to a couple of jumpers late in the game. Nebraska’s sophomore point guard, Cam Mack, scored two points on 1-of-8 shooting in 30 minutes.
Mack has 27 points on 10-of-49 shooting in his last five games. He’s still making plays for his teammates — 28 assists to 11 turnovers — but scoring has been a serious problem.
After starting the game 2-for-10 from 3, the Spartans (18-9, 10-6 Big Ten) finished 13-of-27 (48.1%). Gabe Brown, who had shot 3-of-14 from 3 over his last seven games, hit five of his eight attempts and finished with 17 points off the Michigan State bench. Kyle Ahrens, who hadn’t attempted more than two 3-pointers in a game since Dec. 29, went 4-for-6 from deep and chipped in 14 points. All-America point guard Cassius Winston led all scorers with 23 points and six assists, though he did turn the ball over five times.
On the other end, Dachon Burke Jr. — who had made just five of his 40 3-point attempts in Nebraska’s 13 games following its win over Purdue on Dec. 15 — went off for 18 points in the first half including 4-of-7 from 3. He finished with 21 points. Thorir Thorbjarnarson, one of the Big Ten’s best 3-point shooters this season, missed all five of his attempts and shot 2-of-11 overall for five points.
Nebraska (7-19, 2-13) shot 25% from 3 overall and just 14-of-28 on layups. The Spartans turned the ball over 22 times but Nebraska only converted them into 16 points, which was partially offset by Michigan State’s 16 offensive rebounds and 12 second-chance points.
The Huskers have lost 11 straight games, a new program record for futility. Previously, Nebraska’s longest losing streak was 10 — set twice before including most recently by Hoiberg’s grandfather, Jerry Bush, in 1962-63.
"It's kind of hard to find the motivation, but we just keep trying by going hard in practice, be focused, try to be here for each other and that's all we can do,” Ouedraogo said. “So we are going to keep doing that and expect to win the next games."
Nebraska will have to try to end that streak on the road as the Huskers head to Champaign to take on Illinois 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.