Huskers bounce back with 80-57 blowout of Illinois
In a game featuring two teams riding four-game losing streaks, one was going to finally have something to feel good about again by the end of Nebraska's showdown with Illinois on Saturday.
No one could have guessed just how good it would end up feeling for the Huskers, however.
With easily its best all-around performance of Big Ten Conference play and arguably even the entire season, Nebraska (12-13 overall, 4-10 Big Ten) absolutely demolished the Fighting Illini in an 80-57 victory.
Senior guard Bo Spencer led the way with 27 points on 9-of-11 shooting, as the Huskers shot 55.6 percent as a team compared to just 39.6 percent by Illinois (16-11, 5-9).
Nebraska's 80 points were its second-highest total of the season, and the 23-point win marked its largest margin of victory of the year.
"I can't say enough of how proud I am of our team," head coach Doc Sadler said. "Obviously it's easy to be in my position knowing that you've coached a lot of basketball games and you're going to get a chance to coach a lot more basketball games, but when you're a senior and you've got five games left, and things have been as tough as it has been for them, you hurt for them.
"But to know that you're continuing to get every bit of effort that they've got makes me proud because I knew without it what kind of character and what kind of guys these guys were, but it's not easy, and they went out there and they proved that they do have something that means a lot to them on the back of their jersey. That's what we talked about in the pre-game, is we're always going to play for Nebraska, but we're to the point right now where you better play for the name on the back of your jersey too, because it should mean an awful lot to you. I think our guys did do that."
After falling behind by as many as nine points early in the first half, the Huskers responded with what ended up as one of their best first halves of the season.
With the help of a zone defense that held Illinois to just two points in the final 8:35 and forced 10 turnovers, the Huskers were able to close out the first half on a 17-2 run and take a 33-26 lead into halftime.
The Fighting Illini started out the game with some hot shooting, as they hit four of the first seven 3-point attempts to take an early 16-7 lead with just under 14 minutes to go in the half.
Illinois went back up by eight on a jumper from freshman center Meyers Leonard with 8:35 remaining, but that would pretty much be the end of any semblance of offense it would have the rest of the half.
A pair of 3-pointers by Spencer helped spark a 14-0 run by the Huskers that gave them a 30-24 lead with 2:45 left before halftime, and another three by senior guard Brandon Richardson with just 41 seconds to go sent NU into the locker room with a seven-point advantage.
"I don't want to say we did much different," Sadler said. "The difference was we made a lot of shots. When shots go down, you probably think you played a lot better than you did. Give our guys credit for making shots.
"We made some unbelievable shots. We just made shots, and they didn't."
Nebraska picked up right where it left off to start the second half by opening the half with a 19-2 run. Combined with the rally to end the first half, the Huskers ended up putting together an astonishing 43-7 run and eventually increased their lead to as much as 32 points late in the game.
"It was extremely fun," Spencer said. "Just to see everyone happy, Coach Doc happy. Just to see the fans cheering. It was extremely fun just out there seeing guys dive for loose balls and doing exactly what we did in practice and stopping a team like we were stopping our scout team in practice."
Illinois wouldn't come any closer than 23 points the rest of the way, as Nebraska ended up shooting 56.7 percent from the field as a team in the second half while Illinois was just 31.3 percent.
Senior guard Caleb Walker finished with 13 points, including some highlight-reel dunks and alley-oops, while Richardson followed up with 12 points and six assists. D.J. Richardson led Illinois with 15 points.
The Huskers will look to continue their hot play when they travel to take on Purdue on Wednesday, with tip-off set for 5:30 p.m.
With just four more games left on the schedule, the best NU can finish is 16-13 overall and 8-10 in league play.
Still, after the season they've had to go through, the Huskers will gladly take every win they can get the rest of the way.
"You know, better late than never," Spencer said. "I could question, but there's nothing I can do to go back and change what happened back then. Better late than never. Hopefully we can string these five (games) and try to do something in the conference tournament."
Sadler echoed Spencer's sentiment, saying he knew how tough the past two months have been for his team and Nebraska basketball fans in general.
"I'm proud for them," Sadler said. "Guys, they've been thrown a lot of curve balls. I understand things. I'd be disappointed if people weren't disappointed, if fans weren't disappointed. I'd be disappointed, because it means they don't care. I'd be disappointed if our players didn't care. Our guys care.
"The fans were great. There's not many places in the country that you can go where a team is (3-10) in the league and have that many people at the game, I can promise you that. I was proud for our fans that have been coming and sticking with us, I'm proud of the players, I'm proud of everything, because I know how hard it is to come as a fan and I know how hard it is as a player to continue to come in here and work hard every day. They've done that."
Around the rim
***Nebraska's 23-point margin of victory was Nebraska's largest in conference play since a 72-44 win over No. 25 Texas Tech on Feb. 24, 2004. NU's previous largest winning margin in conference play under Sadler was 22 against Kansas State on Jan. 17, 2009. Prior to today, Illinois' largest loss of the season was 16 against UNLV in Chicago on Dec. 17.
***Nebraska's 80 points was its second-highest total of the year and most since scoring 83 against Rhode Island on Nov. 20, 2011. Nebraska is 2-0 this season when scoring 80 points and 21-2 in Sadler's six seasons at Nebraska.
***Nebraska's 80 points is the second-highest total Illinois has allowed all season (84 at Indiana). Nebraska scored only 54 points in the first meeting on Jan. 7.
***Nebraska's held Illinois to 39.6 shooting, its best field goal defense performance since holding Wisconsin to 31 percent in Madison on Jan. 1.
***Spencer recorded his seventh 20-point game of the year with 27 points on 9-of-11 shooting against Illinois. He now has 21 career games with at least 20 points. Spencer's 27-point effort was two off his career high.
***Nebraska had only 10 turnovers in today's win after committing in the first match-up in January.
***Walker's four steals is a career best (3 vs. Colorado on Jan. 18, 2011; vs. Texas A&M on Jan. 29, 2011). His previous season high was two at Ohio State on Jan. 3. Walker reached double figures for the second straight game with 13 points on 5-of-8 shooting.
***Nebraska shot 55.6 percent from the floor, its second-best night of the season and best in Big Ten play in 2011-12. NU shot at least 50 percent in both games against the Fighting Illini.
***Richardson had six assists in today's win, the sixth time in Big Ten play he has had at least five assists.
***Nebraska held Joseph Bertrand to just two points on 1-of-3 shooting on Saturday. In the first game, he had a career-high 25 points on 11-of-12 shooting from the floor.
***Nebraska improves to 3-8 all-time against Illinois and picks up its first win in Lincoln against the Fighting Illini. NU had lost the previous two games in Lincoln (1945, 1975).
***Nebraska's 32-point second-half lead at 68-36 with 6:59 remaining was Nebraska's largest lead at any point of the season. Nebraska's largest lead before today was 30 points against Rhode Island.
***Mike Fox tied his career high with five points (also vs. Central Michigan on Dec. 17, 2011).
***Nebraska went 10-of-20 from 3-point range, matching the team's best shooting night of the season (also hit 50 percent against South Dakota on Nov. 11, 2011). NU's 10 3-pointers was the third time this season with at least 10 3-pointers.