Despite digging a 16-point hole in the first half, Nebraska battled back to give itself a chance in the final five minutes of its regular season final in Evanston. The Huskers failed to execute on either end in the final 20 seconds, however, and Northwestern won 79-78 on a put-back with 2.7 to go.
The Huskers finished the regular season with a 7-19 record including 3-16 in Big Ten play. The Wildcats opened and closed their conference season with three-game winning streaks but lost 13 straight in between.
Nebraska knocked down a season-high 14 3-pointers, shooting 42.4% from deep as a team, and out-scored Northwestern 12-4 at the free-throw line while hitting them at a 75% clip. However, the Huskers allowed the Wildcats (bottom-half in the Big Ten in nearly every offensive statistic) to shoot 53.3% overall and make 11 3s of their own.
“Our edge on the other end, especially early — they got too comfortable,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said. “When you give a team confidence early in the game like that, you just fight an uphill battle the rest of the way. They shoot too high of a percentage, overall 53%. You’ve got to find a way to dig deep and make it more difficult on them.”
Kobe Webster went off for 20 points in the second half to finish with a season-high 23. He set a new career high for made 3s, shooting 7-of-12, and he dished out a season-high five assists as well.
Trey McGowens was the only other Husker in double figures with 12 points on 4-of-10 from the field and 5-of-6 from the line, six rebounds and four assists. All nine Huskers that played found the scoring column as Thorir Thorbjarnarson led a balanced supporting cast with eight points, eight rebounds and a career-high six assists. The Huskers recorded a season-high 21 assists on 26 field goals but also turned the ball over 15 times.
The Wildcats put six players in double figures led by Chase Audige with 14.
Both teams got off to a slow start as it took over three minutes for the first bucket. Lat Mayen finally got things started with 3, but the Wildcats pulled ahead 11-5 as Nebraska continued to give the ball away.
Thorbjarnarson hit a 3 to cut the deficit in half, but soon after Northwestern took control with a 13-0 run. The Huskers shot 3-of-13 with nine turnovers in the first 13 minutes and fell behind 27-11.
“Obviously a disappointing start,” Hoiberg said. “We talked at length about these afternoon games, it’s imperative that you get off to a quick start and a fast start and are the team the plays with more energy. But I thought Northwestern, early, outplayed us in a lot of those effort categories.”
Thorbjarnarson and the bench gave the Huskers a much-needed spark as the senior hit a 3 to end the run, Eduardo Andre scored four straight with a dunk and a pair of free throws and Trevor Lakes hit a 3 on a pass from Thorbjarnarson for a 10-4 run to cut the deficit to eight.
The Huskers just couldn’t get a stop, however, as the Wildcats went 10-for-13 from the field during a stretch that left them with a 13-point lead.
Nebraska outscored Northwestern 7-3 in the final two minutes of the half including a tip-in by Thorbjarnarson at the buzzer that made it 39-30 at halftime.
Northwestern shot nearly 55% from the field in the first half while the Huskers shot 36%. However, they didn’t turn the ball over in the last 8:57 and that allowed them to hang around.
“I think we came out a little relaxed, a little sluggish,” Webster said. “We were getting stops to start the game, but Coach came in and let us know, in our huddle in a timeout, we’ve got to take care of the ball if we expect to win this game. Once we turned that around, we picked up the assists, the ball was moving, taking care of it, we got the shots that we wanted and put ourselves in a position to win.”
Andre grabbed two boards in addition to the four points he scored, and Nebraska was plus-8 in his eight minutes. Lakes added a layup (just his second 2-pointer of the season) to give him five points, and Nebraska was plus-4 in his six minutes.
“When we put Trevor and Eduardo out there to finish off that first half, that’s when we went on a little bit of a run to close the gap,” Hoiberg said. “We wanted to get that thing to single digits which we accomplished with Thor’s tip-in at the buzzer.”
Northwestern scored to open the second possession, but the Huskers responded with an 8-0 run fueled by two Northwestern turnovers to make it a three-point game 90 seconds in.
After a Wildcat timeout, the teams traded buckets a couple of times before a 9-0 run by Northwestern as the Wildcats hit 3s on three straight possession to pull ahead 54-43.
The gap remained three possessions throughout the next seven minutes until the Huskers finally strung enough stops and buckets together to make a push. Nebraska outscored Northwestern 17-4 to take a 73-69 lead with just over three minutes to go. Webster’s seventh 3 of the game capped the run.
Pete Nance and Derrick Walker traded buckets inside, then Audige hit a 3 for the Wildcats with just over two minutes to play to cut it to one. Nebraska came up empty on its next possession, while Nance got a running hook to fall on the other end to give the Wildcats a lead. Mayen missed a 3 and Walker got called for a foul on the rebound. Boo Buie split the bonus free throws to make it a two-point game.
McGowens went right at Buie on the next possession, blowing by him along the baseline for a go-ahead three-point play with one minute remaining. Ryan Young earned a trip to the foul line for the Wildcats with 42.7 to play but missed the front end.
Nebraska ran down the clock before McGowens got a piece of the paint, coming to a jump stop and kicking it back to Mayen at the top of the key. Instead of taking the open 3, however, Mayen put the ball on the deck with 2 seconds on the shot clock and tried to make something happen, but he ran out of time.
Northwestern got the ball back with 12.7 on the clock. After a timeout, Nebraska picked up full court. Buie pushed the ball ahead and Walker switched onto him, forcing him to pick the ball up. Buie reversed it to Nance at the top of the key with Mayen running at him but Nance attacked the closeout. Nance attempted a tough push shot that bounced hard off the backboard, but both Walker and Webster (who had switched onto Young) rotated over to contest Nance’s shot. That left three guys on the ball and nobody at the rim to rebound, and Young followed the miss for the go-ahead put-back with 2.7 to go.
Hoiberg called timeout and drew up a play that got Webster a deep look from 3. It didn’t fall and was likely after the buzzer anyway, sealing Northwestern’s third straight win and sending the Huskers into the Big Ten Tournament on a two-game losing streak.
Nebraska is the No. 14 seed and will open the tournament on Wednesday night against No. 13 Penn State at approximately 8 p.m. CT.
“Everybody’s 0-0 now going into the postseason now,” Hoiberg said. “That’s the great thing about this time of the year is everybody gets a fresh start and a new opportunity is in front of us. We play a really good basketball team to start with Penn State. We had two really competitive, close games against them. Obviously found a way to pull it out at their place and they got a big win for their program at our place. We just have to find a way to rally and put this one behind us.”