Nebraska certainly won't win any style points for its 54-47 win over Northwestern on Saturday, but at this point in the season, that really doesn't matter one bit.
The Huskers shot 36.5 percent from the field, committed 10 turnovers and had several extended scoreless spurts, but they still managed to do enough to bounce back from their frustrating loss at Illinois on Wednesday and pick up a crucial victory that keeps their NCAA Tournament hopes alive for another day.
"I didn't think frustration set in as much tonight," head coach Tim Miles said. "You could see guys were struggling, and they knew they weren't at their best, but it didn't overwhelm them tonight. Maybe that's being at home and the crowd really cheering, and hopefully it's a sign of progress. I'm hoping. So we'll see. We're going to find out on Wednesday (against Indiana) for sure."
Turnovers, bad shots and all-around bad offense plagued the majority of the first half on both ends of the floor, as neither team could stay out of its own way early on. After the first five minutes, Nebraska had six points and five turnovers, while Northwestern had four points and three turnovers, and both teams were shooting under 25 percent from the field.
The Huskers finally got something going with a quick 8-0 run to go up 17-8 with 7:20 left in the half, but then sophomore wing Terran Petteway picked up his second foul with 5:35 remaining and sat out the rest of the half. That allowed the Wildcats to come back with six straight points and eventually cut it to 22-19 on a 3-pointer by Alex Olah with 2:17 to go. A pretty up-and-under layup by sophomore point guard Benny Parker with just 10.9 left looked to give NU some solid momentum going into halftime, but Tre Demps drained a three as the buzzer sounded to make it 26-22 at the half.
"The way we played them last time, it was going to be the same thing," sophomore forward Shavon Shields said. "They packed in the paint, and if our shots weren't falling it was going to be a tough night. We had to get in transition, get stops; kind of muck it up to get in transition. We ended up starting to get to the rim better in the second half and things like that, which got us going, but we knew it was going to be tough. The Big Ten is going to be tough every night."
Five straight points by Drew Crawford early in the second half quickly cut the lead to 31-30 while Nebraska went nearly four full minutes without a point, but the Huskers eventually responded with an 8-1 run of their own to go back up by 10.
Shields then converted an And-1 to put NU up by its biggest lead of the day at 49-38 with 3:49 remaining, and it looked like the game was in the bag at that point. But Northwestern wasn't ready to lie down just yet. Six consecutive points by Olah sparked a 9-2 Wildcat rally that closed the gap to 51-47 after a 3-pointer by Crawford with 1:16 remaining.
Nebraska then turned it over on its ensuing possession, giving Northwestern the ball back with 45.2 left with a chance to make it a one-score game. Fortunately for NU, Parker came up with one of the plays of the day when he stepped in front of Sanjay Lumpkin to draw a charge with 30.9 remaining.
"I thought Benny Parker's charge was the biggest play of the game," Miles said. "There's no doubt about it.
Shields then hit one of two free throws with 27.5 left to make it a five-point game, and after a miss on the other end by Northwestern, Shields threw down a breakaway dunk to emphatically seal the victory in the final seconds.
Shields ended up with his third-career double-double with 17 points and 10 rebounds, as Nebraska out-rebounded the Wildcats 40-29 with a 13-5 advantage on the offensive glass. Petteway and sophomore forward Walter Pitchford both followed up with 10 points. Olah, who came in averaging 8.4 points per game and had made only six 3-pointers all season, led Northwestern with a game-high 20 points on 3-of-5 shooting from beyond the arc.
Still, the Huskers have now held their past seven opponents to less than 40-percent shooting from the field, as the Wildcats hit just 15-of-45 shots (33.3 percent).
"We just said, listen, if we can be a dominant defensive team we're going to win the game," Miles said. "We're going to win it with defense. We kept that mantra going, and I think the guys just said we'll find enough offense, don't worry about it."
Though the win was huge in keeping the Huskers in the conversation for a potential ticket to the Big Dance, they know they still haven't locked one up just yet. Nebraska will now go on the road to take on Indiana on Wednesday before closing out the regular season against Wisconsin next Saturday.
"It's just another win in the process," Miles said. "Because right now, like we've talked about, you're either at a point where you can't afford to lose or you have to win. So what's your alternative? The league's nuts. We have to go out against Indiana and be those junkyard dogs that we were the last time we went on the road (at Michigan State). I think the Indiana match-up is a good match-up. It's an exciting one for me, and I would love nothing better than to find a way to beat those guys."
There were really two plays that defined the game more than any others for Nebraska. The first was obviously Parker drawing the charge on Lumpkin with 30 seconds left to help save the win. The second came several minutes earlier but was still just as big. With 11:15 remaining, Shields converted a huge And-1 after Northwestern had just rallied back to cut it 31-30. Not only did the play give the Huskers a desperately needed bucket to snap a five-point Wildcat run, it also snapped a nearly four-minutes scoreless streak by NU when it looked like things were about to fall apart.
"He's a guy that tonight, he was going to carry us," Miles said of Shields. "There was just no doubt. He had a look in his eye. His jumper looked great, and he looked really fresh. This is the right time of the year for him to look that way."
What went right
Nebraska's offense continues to struggle, but once again it saved itself with excellent team defense and rebounding. Northwestern never looked in sync offensively, especially in the first half, and had it not been for seven 3-pointers on the day the Wildcats probably wouldn't have even been close. The fact that the Huskers have now held seven straight opponents under 40 percent shooting, even in losses, is simply remarkable. Add in a plus-11 advantage on the boards with eight more offensive rebounds, and NU was able to make up for another off shooting night with lots of hustle and grit.
"Coach (Miles) said coming into the game that we need to be able to defend for thirty-five seconds," Parker said. "We practiced this whole week just defending the ball and running multiple plays. Coach said we need to just bear down and defend for thirty-five seconds until we get a rebound."
What went wrong
Though it came in a win, scoring 54 points while shooting 36.5 percent from the field and 23.5 percent from beyond the arc is not a good day offensively. Maybe the most concerning aspect of that performance was that Petteway had another cold night. He ended up with 10 points, but it came on a dismal 3-of-12 shooting while turning it over three times. Petteway is now just shooting just 16 percent (5-of-30) over the past two games, and his lack of production has had a direct impact on Nebraska averaging just 51.5 points the last two outings.
"He felt a body or two bodies ever time he entered the lane, and he got to the foul line three times," Miles said. "If you're able to stand and chest him up and you're able to move your feet enough, then it's not a foul. He's got to be able to move and counter. Play off two feet? An occasional shot fake maybe? Something crazy? Get fouled? I think we need to work with him on that.
"They were sweet. I liked them. High shorts next time."
- Pitchford on his thoughts on Nebraska's 1911-12 throwback uniforms they wore against Northwestern.