Nebraska grabbed the momentum on the road with a 9-0 run to take the lead eight minutes into the second half on Tuesday. Then the wheels fell off and Illinois outscored Nebraska 24-6 down the stretch to hand the Huskers their fourth straight loss, 72-56.
The Huskers (10-13, 3-9 Big Ten) out-shot a trigger-happy Illinois team, shooting 40% with eight 3s while the Illinois shot 5-for-29 (17.2%). However, Illinois (16-6, 7-4) more than doubled up Nebraska at the foul line and outscored the Huskers in the paint, 36-22.
Sam Griesel lifted the team on his shoulders early and late, finishing with a game-high 21 points, six rebounds and two assists while Keisei Tominaga and C.J. Wilcher combined for 19 points while shooting 5-of-8 from 3.
However, Derrick Walker fouled out in 23 minutes with eight points, six rebounds, four assists and six turnovers while the rest of the team combined for just eight points on 2-of-13 shooting. Redshirt freshman walk-on Sam Hoiberg logged his first career start but couldn’t recapture the magic from his previous two outings, playing just 11 minutes without scoring.
Nebraska turned the ball over 19 times, and the Illini scored 12 points in transition to Nebraska’s two.
“It all goes back to the turnovers,“ Coach Fred Hoiberg said during his post-game radio interview. “It’s just so unfortunate because we had a chance, we had a chance to get this game, we had a lead with 12 minutes left and then just turnovers, not in the right spots coming down in execution. I keep pointing to Derrick; he’s a huge part of what we do and not having him on the floor hurts us.”
Illinois put four scorers in double figures led by Matthew Mayer’s 16, though it took him 14 field goal attempts and six free throw attempts to get there. The Huskers limited Terrence Shannon Jr. to 13 points on 13 shots and two free throws after he lit them up for 25 points in the first meeting. But Nebraska couldn’t execute well enough down the stretch to capitalize on their defensive success.
Griesel got the Huskers off to a great start, accounting for the team’s first 12 points as he scored 10 himself (a layup, three free throws, a 3 and a post bucket) and assisted Walker for the other two. Illinois missed 10 of its first 12 shots and turned the ball over three times as Nebraska built a 12-5 lead early.
“I liked him hunting 3s, and if they’re going to play off then he’s got to be ready to step into it and shoot it,” Hoiberg said of Griesel’s start. “That’s what he was tonight, he had good footwork into his shot. I thought he had great rhythm on his on his 3s, and he got us going. Then he got downhill, and then they had to guard him tighter and that’s what got him to the basket. I thought he and Derrick had a couple of two-man games there early.”
Nebraska’s rebounding slipped, however, giving the Illini extra looks at the basket and fueling a 9-0 run to give Illinois the lead. Griesel answered with a 3, but Illinois scored the next five while Walker picked up his second foul and took a seat. Blaise Keita took his place, making his first appearance since the Purdue game on Jan. 13.
Griesel scored again with a strong take and spin to the basket, then Jamarques Lawrence hit a free-throw jumper for the first points Griesel didn’t have a hand in to tie it up at 19-all 13 minutes in.
Illinois fired right back with an 8-1 run before Hoiberg put Walker back in the game, and he immediately scored inside to stop the bleeding, sparking a 9-3 Husker run to cut the deficit to two.
The Huskers stayed hot the rest of the half, trading buckets with Illinois to cut the deficit down to one at the break, 38-37. Wilcher and Tominaga scored five points apiece in the last four minutes for Nebraska.
Nebraska shot 52% from the field including 5-of-11 from 3 and 6-of-8 from the foul line. The Huskers held Illinois to 38.2% from the field including 4-of-17 from 3 but gave up eight second-chance points on five offensive rebounds. Mayer led the Illini with 11 points in the half.
After turning it over six times in the first half, Nebraska committed eight giveaways in the first six and a half minutes of the second, allowing Illinois to stretch the lead out to seven at 48-41.
“We’ve got to be better,” Hoiberg said. “We’ve got to take care of the ball. We had six turnovers at halftime; we came out and turned it over, I think, four of the first five possessions, and that just gave it to them. They pressure, they ramp up, that’s what they do, but a lot of those are just absolutely inexcusable. I thought we had momentum at half and then we came out right away in the second and gave it right back to them.”
The Huskers settled in, however, and after two minutes of scoreless basketball Nebraska hit 3s on three straight possessions — Tominaga, Wilcher, Tominaga — to take a 50-48 lead.
After nearly five minutes without an Illinois point, Shannon scored in transition to spark an 15-4 Illini run, putting Illinois ahead 63-54 with five and a half to play.
Then the Huskers scored two points in the final 6:26 of regulation, missing all seven shots including five 3s and turning the ball over three times. Walker fouled out at the 3:33 mark, and Griesel was the only Husker to score in the last 12:56 of the game.
Nebraska shot 28% from the field in the second half and made just seven field goals while turning the ball over 13 times. Illinois extended its lead despite shooting 1-for-12 from 3 in the second half.
“We played hard, we just obviously really struggled to execute late,” Hoiberg said. “We had a nice little stretch there in the middle, we struggled coming out of the gate in the second then obviously in the finish, but if we can bottle up those things that we’re doing well, get back, clean it up, we’ve got a nice schedule in February. I think we’ve got five home games and we’re going to continue to come out and compete, hopefully clean it up and find a way to get on the on the other end of these.”
After two games on the road, the Huskers will return home to host Penn State at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Sunday afternoon. The Huskers fell to the Nittany Lions at the Bryce Jordan Center on Jan. 21.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. 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.