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Nebrasketball: Huskers drop opener to Western Illinois, falling 75-74

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COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 10 Big Ten Tournament - Nebraska v Penn State Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Nebraska Cornhuskers failed to build on the momentum from preseason exhibition wins and fell flat against Summit League opponent the Western Illinois Leathernecks. In front of an announced crowd of 15,312, Nebraska fell 75-74 in the season opener at Pinnacle Bank Arena Tuesday night.

In a game that saw 12 lead changes and nine ties, Nebraska eventually fell 75-74 in a hard fought game by the Leathernecks. The Huskers kept a tight rotation in this one, playing just seven players with double-digit minutes. However, the starter nods went to Alonzo Verge Jr., Bryce McGowens, Trey McGowens, CJ Wilcher, and Derrick Walker.

Of those starters, Verge (26 points) and Bryce McGowens (25 points) combined for 51 of Nebraska’s 74 points on 38 of the team’s 59 shots. McGowens 25 point performance was the most ever by a Husker freshman in his debut, besting Joe McCray’s 23 points in the 2004-2005 season opener against Arkansas Pine-Bluff. It also marked the 10th highest scoring in a game by a Husker freshman all-time.

Speaking of record-setting debuts, Verge’s 26 point performance was the most by a Husker in the last 50 years. The transfer from Arizona State is playing his final season of eligibility in Lincoln. Verge also added 13 rebounds and five of the Huskers’ six assists on the night to notch his first double-double of his Nebraska career, and his first double-double performance overall, in his first regular season game for UNL. He set his career-high in rebounds as well, besting his previous best of eight against Oregon last season.

Despite his monster debut for Nebraska, Verge also split a pair of free throws with just 16.6 seconds left to play in the game. That allowed WIU’s Luka Barisic to drain a three-pointer to give WIU the go-ahead lead of the game that saw Verge dribble the length of the floor to try and respond but fail on a reverse layup at the buzzer that went wild and missed.

However, Verge and younger McGowen’s performance was the exception to the rest of the roster’s performance on offense. Nebraska spent most of the game seemingly stuck in neutral on the I-180 on-ramp off 10th street. The Huskers seemed to struggle against the pair of 6-foot-10 forwards the Leathernecks featured on the court. UNL had just one assist in the first half and went a mere 11-of-22 from the field, or just 33.3 percent, on shooting, including 2-of-11 from three. Nebraska, unsurprisingly, trailed 33-32 at half with that shooting performance. Though some brief highlights such as this three by Keisei Tominaga made for a nice break:

Things did not improve for the Huskers in the second half as the Leathernecks led by as much as seven points twice in the second half. That includes a 9-0 run capped off at the 10:41 mark when JJ Flores found Colton Sandage for a layup to stretch the lead to 59-52 before Bryce McGowens responded with a three of his own to stop the bleeding at the 10:23 mark. A few other highlight reels made for a nice change of pace in the game, like this dunk from Trey McGowens earlier in the second half:

But at the end of the final buzzer, Nebraska opened this one with a loss to move to 0-1 on the season. This marks the second time in three seasons Nebraska has fallen in the season opener to a non-power-six opponent. Then again, can that come as a surprise in this matchup when you realize Nebraska was “manhandled” on the boards 57-37, with 23 offensive rebounds by the Leathernecks? That description in quotation marks comes directly from head coach Fred Hoiberg in describing the rebound battle post-game by the way.

Nebraska will host Sam Houston State on Friday at 7:30 p.m. with the game set to broadcast on B1G+.