Coming into Saturday’s game, the Huskers had dropped four straight and six of the last eight in Big Ten play. They had a chance to right the ship and gain some momentum against the Fighting Illini. Illinois was 6-15 before the game with the second worst Big Ten conference record at 2-8.
In just the second game for Tim Miles and company since losing Isaac Copeland for the season, things started just about as bad as possible.
Illinois opened the game with a 7-0 run, prompting a Miles timeout. He must have used the last of his magic in that huddle, as the Huskers responded with a 10-0 run themselves. James Palmer Jr. capped it off with back-to-back three-pointers.
There would be some back and forth for the next four minutes, until an Amir Harris dunk put the Huskers up 18-13 with 12 minutes left.
Then a trademarked Huskers scoring drought came along. By the next time the Huskers scored, Illinois will have gone on a 10-0 run to go up 23-18 with under nine minutes left. Why couldn’t the Huskers get a bucket? Take a look for yourself.
Due to Illinois foul trouble, free throws would help the Huskers get to 29 at half. Five of Nebraska’s last 11 points were from the charity stripe. Considering they also missed five free throws, the Huskers left some points on the board. A flurry of threes and a little bit of Trent Frazier would put the Illini up 38-29 at half.
If only halves were 17 minutes long, however, as Illinois would open up the second frame with a six to nothing run before the Huskers would find the bottom of the bucket.
Down 15 with 17 to go, the Huskers would have to go to work. They traded punches and even technical fouls, with the lead fluctuating from 11 to 14, but always at double digits.
Thomas Allen and Tanner Borchardt would pull the Huskers within 11, but it was back-to-back Glynn Watson Jr. layups that would make the score 47-54, just a seven point difference. Unfortunately for Watson, the senior guard would go on to foul out with with under three minutes to go.
But every time it seemed like the Huskers could climb the mountain, Illinois would just send them right back down the hill. Whether it was Ayo Dosunmu or Kipper Nichols (who dropped 19 after not scoring the last five games), there was always and answer from the orange and blue.
Credit the Husker defense, as they locked down a little better in the second half than the first. It was simply timely buckets by Illinois and stagnant offense by Nebraska that never allowed them to cut down that lead.
But, like any true Husker team, however, just when you think they are out, they pull you back in. It was the final two and a half minutes where it got interesting. Down 53-67, a Borchardt layup followed by a powerful and-one dunk by Palmer would fuel an 11-4 Huskers run with 37 second remaining. Eight missed free throws from the Illini even gave the boys in scarlet and cream some hope.
Unfortunately, missed layups, desperation threes and the inability to cash in on offensive rebounds did in the Huskers, with that early double-digit lead keeping Nebraska at a distance.
Huskers drop their fifth in a row and are totally reeling without Copeland. Miles’ seat must be scorching.
Bright spots? Palmer had 22, but on 20 shots. I’d go with Borchardt who got his first career double-double with 12 points and 18 rebounds. Watson (six points on 3-12 shooting and 0-6 from three) and Isaiah Roby (nine points on 3-11 shooting). Huskers went 3-23 from deep. While they struggled from the line and had ten turnovers, Illinois was just as bad or worse in both categories.
Sigh...Huskers will take on 21-ranked Maryland at home on Wednesday.
Final: Nebraska Huskers 64, Illinois Fighting Illini 71