Photo Credit: John Peterson

Verge Surge, Stifling Defense Lead Huskers to First Big Ten Win of the Season

February 09, 2022

An inspired defensive effort in the first half and an offensive takeover by Alonzo Verge Jr. in the second half carried Nebraska to its first Big Ten win of the season on Wednesday as the Huskers took down Minnesota 78-65 at Pinnacle Bank Arena.

The Cornhuskers bounced back from their worst effort of the season against Northwestern to put forth one of their best against the Gophers and snap their 10-game losing streak.

“It all started in practice,” Bryce McGowens said about the defensive effort. “I feel like this week in practice, we really got after it after our embarrassing loss on Saturday. We we couldn’t go out like that again. So I feel like we all brought it in practice which translated over to the game.”

Verge scored 20 of his game-high 22 points in the second half, shooting 8-of-12 from the field and 5-of-8 from the line with four assists and three steals.

“He was, start to finish I thought, as good as he’s been all year,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s had really good stretches and flashes. but what he did, getting into paint, making plays.The turnovers late, we’ve got to clean that up, but overall, start to finish, I think that’s Alonzo’s best game.”

Bryce McGowens added 16 points and four rebounds despite foul trouble limiting him to a season-low 25 minutes. Derrick Walker chipped in 11 points on 4-of-4 from the field and 3-of-4 at the foul line, seven rebounds and two blocks. Trey McGowens scored just six points but stuffed the stat sheet otherwise with seven rebounds, five assists and two steals while limiting Minnesota’s Payton Willis (16.7 points per game on 49.4% shooting) to 13 points on 3-of-8 shooting.

“I feel like [Trey] and Derrick are really our glue guys,” Bryce McGowens said. “They just really do everything. They’ve played at the highest level for an amount of years. So just just him being able to come out and compete, he was ready to take on the challenge today and we knew that. When he walked in the door today, we knew he was he was ready to play ball.”

Nebraska (7-17, 1-12 Big Ten) shot 48.3% from the field including 7-of-18 from 3 and outscored Minnesota 40 to 22 in the paint. The Huskers’ defense led to offense as Nebraska converted 18 Minnesota turnovers into 25 points on the other end, and the Huskers scored 21 points in transition as well.

Nebraska held Minnesota (11-9, 2-9) to 39.3% from the field including 7-of-21 from 3.

Nebraska set the tone on defense on the opening possession as Verge got things started with a steal and score, sparking a 9-2 opening run for the Huskers that included two highflying alley-oops from Trey McGowens to his brother Bryce. Eight of the nine points came in transition as the Huskers forced four early turnovers.

The Cornhuskers pushed their lead to double-digits with another surge featuring a layup from Lat Mayen off a Verge feed, a three-point play from Trey McGowens and a 3-pointer from Keisei Tominaga after Tominaga had drawn a charge on the other end.

Minnesota got a tough 2 from E.J. Stephens, but C.J. Wilcher answered with a pull-up 3 to give Nebraska a 20-8 lead. Bryce McGowens picked up two fouls in less than 20 seconds, sending him to the bench, but the Huskers mostly treaded water without him and he returned after the under-8 timeout with Nebraska leading 22-13.

Minnesota surpassed its season average for turnovers with 10 of them before the under-four timeout, but the Huskers couldn’t take advantage of the gifts to blow the game open. Back-to-back layups from Minnesota cut the deficit to eight with less than two minutes to play, but Kobe Webster checked in and buried a 3 against the Gophers’ 2-3 zone to push the lead back to 11 and neither side scored in the final minute.

Nebraska took a 32-21 lead into halftime. The Gophers shot 37% from the field including 0-of-9 from 3 with 12 turnovers, and Nebraska converted those giveaways to 15 points on the other end. However, the Huskers shot just 3-of-10 from 3 and 9-of-18 on layups and dunks themselves. 

The Golden Gophers woke up from the 3-point line, hitting three of their first five triples in the second half to pull within seven, but Verge took over.

After a rough first half (two points on 1-of-4 shooting and three turnovers), the senior began to pick apart the Minnesota defense. He hit his first five shots for 11 points and dished out a couple of assists to Walker in the first nine minutes. 

Nebraska used a 12-0 run to push its lead to 20 at 52-32, and Verge’s fingerprints were all over it. He set up Walker for a layup to get it started, then in-bounded to himself off a defender’s back for a layup, then he hit a pull-up 3 in transition. After a 3-pointer from Wilcher, Verge set Walker up again to complete the run.

“It was big,” Bryce McGowens said about Verge’s big second half. “We know he’s capable of being that type of player. He came out second half ready to go, showed it, had a big spurt for us which gave us momentum, early momentum in the second half … He’s a warrior.”

Minnesota pulled within 12 twice, but each time Nebraska answered with a 3 pointer — one from Wilcher and one from Bryce McGowens. 

A pair of Minnesota free throws followed McGowens’ triple, but the Huskers responded with five straight as Walker went 3-for-4 at the line with Trey McGowens rebounding the miss, leading to a tough fadeaway jumper from Verge with just under four minutes remaining to put the Huskers back up by 18.

The finish was a bit bumpy with turnovers and missed free throws, but the lead never dipped to single digits as the Huskers sealed their first Big Ten win since March 1, 2021.

“We’ve been trying to win in the Big Ten for so long and we’ve had so many close games where we thought we were going to win, so to just finally see this one go through, it’s definitely a huge weight lifted off our shoulders for us,” Walker said. “It’s great, we won. We can finally smile and be happy.”

The Gophers outscored Nebraska by two at the free-throw line and by nine at the 3-point line in the second half as Minnesota’s leading scorer, Jamison Battle, erupted for 21 second-half points after a scoreless first half. However, the Huskers did enough to maintain a double-digit lead for the last seven minutes.

Up next, the Huskers will head to Iowa City for their first of two meetings with the Hawkeyes in a two-week span.

“Just really proud of the effort that the guys came out with, and now the challenge is to go out and duplicate that on Sunday,” Hoiberg said. “We have to have two more good days of prep. Obviously you want to feel good and enjoy it because it’s been a long time coming, but you’ve got to put it behind you and get to work, businesslike approach, and hopefully win a few more of these games going down the stretch.”

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