Huskers drop fifth straight in 71-64 loss to Illinois
With its NCAA Tournament hopes diminishing with every loss during a four-game skid, Nebraska entered Saturday’s road game at Illinois in about as much of a must-win situation as it gets.
Yet the Huskers urgency and execution fell well short once again, as they dropped a 71-64 defeat to a Fighting Illini team that had won just six games all season.
Nebraska’s dismal shooting woes didn’t let up in the slightest, hitting just 35.7 percent from the field while going 3-of-23 (13 percent) from behind the arc and 11-of-21 (52.4 percent) from the free-throw line.
As a result, the Huskers (13-9 overall, 3-8 Big Ten) have now lost five straight and seven of their past nine games, moving closer than ever to imploding a once-promising season for good.
“When you’re in the Big Ten and you’ve lost a few in a row … it really takes a little bit of the spirit out of you each time; there’s no question,” head coach Tim Miles said. “We’ve got to work hard to buoy that; get these guys, keep them afloat, because they’re working hard enough, but you’ve got to truly believe it right down to their bones.”
After falling behind 7-0 and burning two timeouts within the first three minutes of the game, Nebraska settled down and responded with a 10-0 of its own with the help of eight straight points from James Palmer Jr.
Illinois (7-15, 3-8) came back with another 10-0 run aided by a four-minute NU scoring drought to reclaim the lead at NU 23-18. Back-to-back 3-pointers by Kipper Nichols and Trent Frazier would give the Illini their biggest lead of the half at 36-25 with 2:59 left.
Nebraska ended up shooting just 32.3 percent from the field, 3-of-12 (25 percent) from 3-point range, and 6-of-13 (46.2) from the free throw line while making just three field goals in the final 11:16 to go into halftime down 38-29.
Nichols, who hadn’t scored a point in the past five games or reached double figures since Dec. 15, scored 10 of his season-high 18 points in the first half alone.
Things didn’t go any better to start the second half, either, as Illinois opened on a 6-0 run to take its largest lead yet at 44-29.
The Huskers were able to at least able to keep the deficit from getting worse and even pulled back within eight after six points from sophomore Thomas Allen.
A runner by senior Glynn Watson with 10:11 remaining got it down to 54-47, but NU followed that up by going scoreless over the next five minutes to allow the Illini to push the lead back up to a commanding 60-47.
“At one point I said, ‘Let’s make a three,’” Miles said. “That’s what I actually said, and I added another adjective in there… But we missed a wide-open three, we missed two shots at the rim that would’ve got that (deficit) to four or five, but it didn’t go our way.”
Another 3-pointer by Frazier off of an offensive rebound made it 65-53 and provided the dagger with 3:07 left, as Nebraska’s final 7-0 run with just over a minute to play proved to be far too little, too late.
Palmer scored a team-high 22 points but on another inefficient 6-of-19 shooting clip, while Allen added 10 points. Senior Tanner Borchardt was one of the lone bright spots for NU, as he posted his best game as a Huskers with a career-high 12 points and 18 rebounds.
Nebraska actually out-rebounded Illinois 50-36 and had 21 offensive rebounds, but it missed all 11 of its 3-pointers in the second half and as out-scored by a whopping 36-4 in bench points. The Illini led for the final 31:50 despite only making 9-of-23 free throws.
The Huskers will return to action at home against Maryland on Wednesday for a 6 p.m. tip on Big Ten Network.
“We just have to stay with it,” Miles said. “Isaac Copeland went down, and now we’ve had two games to look at that. I thought we had more clarity in the second half of who we were and how we have to do it… So I feel better and more clear about who we are and where we’re going, and I think that’s a good start.”
1. Nebraska's shooting continues to be a disaster
Nebraska’s shooting has been terrible throughout its recent losing skid, and Saturday only continued its troubling offensive trend. The Huskers once again couldn’t make 3-pointers, couldn’t make free throws, and still struggled to even finish layups and dunks, going 16-of-27 (59.2 percent) at the rim. Borchardt (6-of-9) was the only NU player with more than one shot attempt to go better than 42 percent from the field. Nebraska’s four original starters – Palmer, Watson, Allen, and Isaiah Roby – combined to shoot 30.9 percent. It doesn’t matter who they play the rest of the way; the Huskers aren’t beating anyone shooting like that.
2. Watson's struggles are a serious concern
Another disturbing trend starting to form for Nebraska is the rapid regression of Watson. For the second game in a row, the fourth-year starting point guard had one of his worst individual performances of the season. He finished with just six points on 3-of-12 shooting, missed all six of his 3-pointers, and didn’t register an assist in 30 minutes of work before fouling out. That’s on the heels of him scoring a season-low five points while going 2-of-10 from the field last time out vs. Ohio State. With senior Isaac Copeland out for the year, Watson’s role became even more important than it already was. He simply cannot have those type of stat lines if NU is going to have any chance from here on out.
3. Borchardt was the silver lining
There wasn’t much of anything to feel good about for Nebraska in this one, but the lone silver lining was the career performance from Borchardt. The former walk-on had his most productive day as a Husker on Saturday. Not only did he set career bests in points and rebounds, his effort all game was an example all of his teammates should model. Of his game-high 18 boards, 11 of those came on the offensive glass. It marked the third straight game Borchardt has grabbed at least six rebounds, and his 18 total was the most by a Husker since Ed Morrow Jr. also had 18 against Gardner-Webb on Dec. 18, 2016. The last Husker to have more was Aleks Maric, who had 19 against Missouri 2007.