New season, new roster, but the same old problems persist for Nebraska as the Huskers fell to Western Illinois, 75-74, in their season-opener on Tuesday.
Five missed free throws in the final four minutes, a couple of defensive breakdowns in the last 30 seconds and 23 offensive rebounds for the Leathernecks were too much for Nebraska to overcome in the season-opener at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Both teams shot 39% from the field, but Western Illinois’ 42-30 edge in paint points and 12-point advantage from the 3-point line was enough to offset the Huskers’ 17-point lead at the free-throw line. The Huskers shot 74.2% overall from the line, but those misses late were costly.
Coach Fred Hoiberg called Lat Mayen and Kobe Webster game-time decisions after Monday’s practice, but neither of them suited up. C.J. Wilcher started in Mayen’s place and Nebraska spent three-fourths of the game with a four-guard lineup on the floor. Western Illinois took advantage and converted their 23 offensive rebounds into 22 second-chance points.
“I didn’t think it was going to be that lopsided,” Derrick Walker said. “I actually thought we were going to come out and be a lot better on the o-boards today. It’s just toughness. We’ve got to toughen up at some point. We’ve got to say we’re tired of letting people come in and get our board, and we’ve just got to toughen up as a team.”
Alonzo Verge Jr. led the Huskers with 26 points, a career-high 13 rebounds and five assists for his first career double-double, but he shot 9-of-20 from the field (1-of-2 from 3) and 7-of-9 from the foul line.
Freshman Bryce McGowens added 25 points — the most in program history for a freshman in his debut — and six rebounds in 39 minutes, hitting 10 of his 12 free-throw attempts, but he shot just 7-of-18 from the field including 1-of-6 from 3.
“Bryce kept us in it there,” Hoiberg said. “I thought he did a good job attacking, got himself to the free-throw line. Twelve free throws is great for a debut. I thought he battled and competed out there. But unfortunately, he’s not going to be happy. He’s a kid that obviously wants to win, so it doesn’t mean anything.”
The rest of the Huskers combined to shoot 7-of-21 from the field as Western Illinois’ switch-everything defense led to a lot of isolation play and stagnant offensive basketball for the Huskers. Nebraska finished with six assists and 12 turnovers.
“Especially in the first half, we had one assistant at halftime,” Hoiberg said. “That’s just not us and they went to a switching one-through-five defense. We got really stagnant, obviously, and just tried to drive through a pile and throw up wild shots. Second half, our pace was much better. We scored 42 points, that’s enough. We just didn’t have any physicality and couldn’t finish off possessions on the defensive end.”
Nebraska took a while to get going, missing its first six shots from the field, many of which were at the rim. Bryce McGowens got the Huskers on the board with a pair of free throws, then hit their first field goal with a tough Euro-step into a layup.
Western Illinois jumped out to a 13-6 lead before things started to click for Nebraska. The Huskers scored on five of their next six possessions and ripped off a 12-0 run to take an 18-13 lead.
A three-point play from Bryce McGowens gave the Huskers their largest lead of the half at 24-17 at the seven-minute mark, but Western Illinois chipped away at the lead the rest of the half. The Leathernecks pulled ahead on a possession that included three offensive rebounds.
Verge gave Nebraska the lead again with a bucket, but Western Illinois ended the half with another multi-offensive rebound possession culminating in a tip-in at the buzzer by Luka Barisic to make it 33-32 Leathernecks.
Nebraska surrendered 12 offensive rebounds on 25 missed field goals and four missed free throws, which the Leathernecks turned into 16 second-chance points. The Huskers had just one assist in the first half and shot 33.3% from the field including 2-of-11 from the 3-point line.
Bryce McGowens scored nine straight Nebraska points during a stretch and led the way with 13 points in all, but he shot 5-of-13 from the field. Verge added 11 points.
The teams traded min-runs throughout the second half. Western Illinois opened with a pair of triples to pull ahead by seven. The Huskers used an 11-3 run to take a 48-45 lead, but Western Illinois answered with another 3.
The teams traded scores until a 9-0 run gave the Leathernecks a 59-52 lead, but Nebraska answered with a 7-0 McGowens run. After missing his first five 3-point attempts of the night, Bryce hit one from NBA range, then spit a pair of free throws. His brother, Trey, went 3-for-4 at the line to tie it up.
Three more ties followed before a free throw and a layup from Verge and a poster dunk from Trey McGowens gave the Huskers a 72-69 lead with two minutes remaining.
Nebraska got three straight stops but converted them into one point on the other end thanks to a missed 3 and three missed free throws. Wilcher split his shots to make it 73-69 with less than 30 seconds to go.
Out of a timeout, Nebraska gave Trenton Massner space at the top of the key and he buried the 3, his fourth triple of the game, with 22 seconds left. Western Illinois sent Verge to the line with 16.6 to go but the Arizona State transfer only hit one, making it a two-point game.
Without a timeout, Western Illnois reserve KJ Lee pushed the ball up the floor and ran a pick-and-pop with Barisic, who was 1-for-5 from 3 at that point. Lee found Barisic wide open at the top of the key and he buried it to give the Leathernecks the lead with 6.4 to go.
“Communication,” Walker said. “First time being in situation like that. It’s a learning experience. It’s scouting, it’s knowing your personnel. It’s knowing what time it is at the end of the game. It’s executing Xs and Os on offense and defense. Credit to him, he made a tough shot. They made two tough shots, credit to them. But for us, we’ve just got to get better at defense, get better at everything. Learn, figure out where we made a mistake and fix it.”
After a timeout, Nebraska got the ball in to Verge and he pushed it ahead, driving into the lane, drawing three defenders. Instead of kicking it out to one of at least three open shooters, though, Verge tried to go up with it, flipping it back over his head and off the rim as time expired.
No good. Ball game. pic.twitter.com/WnuoJyDAkO
— Jacob Padilla (@JacobPadilla_) November 10, 2021
“Alonzo had a lane to the basket,” Hoiberg said. “I thought he had three guys open as he drove down. I’ll have to take a look at it. We got the play where we wanted it, to get him downhill and attacking. I’ll go back and take a look at it and see what the options were.”
Nebraska will return to the court on Friday in search of their first win as Sam Houston State visits Lincoln.
“You can go one of two ways from this: you can pout and put your heads down or you can learn from it and get better, and that’s what we’re going to have to do these next two days leading into our next game on Friday,” Hoiberg said. “We’re playing a good team on Friday. We’ve got to grow from it, we’ve got to get better from it and, and find a way to get some type of physicality out there. We’re just getting manhandled right now, obviously, on the glass.”
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.