Nebraska hit a wall Tuesday afternoon, a maroon and mustard one.
Three days after downing No. 15 Ohio State at home to mark a fourth win in five games, Nebraska dropped a tough one against a Minnesota Gopher squad that entered the day 2-7 on the season and 1-6 in conference play.
The Huskers just couldn’t make shots. A once-10-point Nebraska lead was carefully whittled away until the legs looked altogether gone. In the end, Minnesota handed Nebraska (7-5, 5-4 Big Ten) its first home loss of the season, 76-71.
“We’ve been trying to make a special effort to protect home court,” head coach Amy Williams said after. “It’s a tough loss. … I thought we got some great shots in the fourth quarter but we were 3-for-21. Just couldn’t find a way to put the ball in the basket down the stretch.”
At one point in the fourth quarter, Nebraska was going on 16 straight shot attempts without a make. The Huskers missed layups and elbow jumpers that they’ve been hitting in the last few weeks. Lead guard Sam Haiby had 25 points, but shot 7-for-21 to get there and went 2-for-8 from the field in the fourth quarter.
At the other end, the defensive intensity a shorthanded squad has played with for five games ebbed and flowed. Minnesota kept bombing away.
A season-high 15 made triples for Minnesota represented a season-worst for Nebraska’s defense, breaking a string of, you guessed it, five straight games of holding opponents below 33% from deep.
“Frankly, we talked in the locker room after the game about the fact that for us, 71 points needs to be enough,” Williams said.
Nebraska won the rebounding battle, blocked seven shots, won the paint, took more free throws, and led for 32 of the game’s 40 minutes.
The 3 ball is the great equalizer, though, and Minnesota outscored Nebraska 45-27 with it.
“I thought we had stretches where we did pretty well,” Haiby said, “but I think we just need to be more effective in knowing where the shooters are at and getting out there and contesting shots early to start the game.”
Early on, it looked like the Huskers might be able to run away and hide with this one, get some much-needed rest and avoid a sixth straight game that was played down to the wire. The ball whipped around the court at one end and the Huskers stymied the Gophers at the other in building a double-digit first-quarter lead.
Haiby had 10 early points. Nebraska was shooting 50% from the field and had five assists on eight makes. The lead held steady near 10 until about four minutes to play in the second quarter, but Nebraska was trading buckets rather than getting stops. Then when the offense went a little cold, the Gophers went on a little 9-2 spurt to erase the deficit.
If not for a pair of triples from guard Ashley Scoggin within 90 seconds of each other, Nebraska might have entered the halftime break trailing. It led by just three.
Still, Minnesota turned in a 29-point second quarter on the strength of 10 offensive rebounds and six made triples.
“That’s something that really sparked them,” Williams said. Haiby pointed to it as well.
Sometimes the other guys just hit shots and you draw back iron.
Minnesota was coming off five days rest. Nebraska hosted the Buckeyes on Saturday with only seven available players, and then played those same seven again Tuesday. Sophomore forward Issie Bourne, the team’s second-leading scorer continues to nurse an ankle injury without a firm timetable for her return.
To Williams’ and her team’s credit, tired legs weren’t an excuse anyone was interested in using.
“We could try to find any excuse that we possibly can but the truth is our situation is what it is,” Williams said. “One of the reasons why I don’t want to use the excuse of tired legs is because I’m watching us chase down offensive rebounds and making hustle plays and kicking it back out and getting great shots. They’re just rimming out. I feel like the effort and energy was still there.
“Sometimes the ball’s going to rim out and you have to be able to hang your hat on defense and rebounding and there were just a few stretches that we kind of let up in that area and I think that’s really what probably sealed the deal.”
Considering the stretch the Huskers just finished up, even on the heels of a loss there might be a moment to exhale. The next three opponents to meet Nebraska are a combined 1-18 in Big Ten play. Tighten the screws and Nebraska should be able to rebound. But a slip-up can’t become a skid. Nebraska, Williams said, isn’t going to write this loss off, but it also isn’t going to go in the can because of it.
“This team doesn’t want to lose,” Williams said. But, “we’re gonna try as hard as we can not to let the wins make us too high or the losses take us too low and just stay focused on doing what we need to do to put in the work to keep becoming better.”
Up next is a trip to Illinois (2-6, 0-5 Big Ten) on Monday, Jan. 25. Tip-off against the Illini is set for 7 p.m. CT with coverage on BTN.