Huskers no match for Wolverines in Big Ten tourney rout
NEW YORK CITY - In what was arguably the biggest game of Nebraska’s season with regards to solidifying its place in the NCAA Tournament, the Huskers seemed overwhelmed by the moment.
After falling behind to Michigan by as many as 18 points in the first half, NU could never recover in a 77-58 defeat in Friday’s quarterfinal round of the Big Ten Tournament at Madison Square Garden.
The Wolverines (26-7) shot 44.3 percent from the field and knocked down 11 3-pointers while Nebraska’s offense was wildly inconsistent the entire day.
James Palmer Jr. and Isaiah Roby each scored team-high 16 points, but NU (22-10) shot just 30 percent as a team, including going 3-of-10 from behind the arc, and finished with 10 turnovers to just five assists.
As a result, the Huskers’ hopes of dancing took a significant hit leading into Selection Sunday next week.
“Their offensive pace really got us on our heels early,” head coach Tim Miles said. “When they make 11 3-pointers, you're in big trouble because then your defense gets too spread out, and it's hard to get them under control. We've done a good job all year of taking away threes, but we didn't today.”
Nebraska led 9-4 out of the gates, but Moritz Wagner scored UM’s first eight points and Wolverines hit four of their first six 3-pointers to take a 16-9 lead eight minutes into the game.
The Huskers ended up going on a span of missing a staggering 19 of 20 shot attempts to allow Michigan to rack up a 15-point lead with just under four minutes to go in the half.
A 3-pointer by Duncan Robinson pushed the Wolverines’ lead all the way up to 33-15 before Palmer finally got the Huskers a bucket on an And-1 with 2:36 remaining.
As bad as things were for the majority of the half, Nebraska was able to get things somewhat under control over the final minutes with a 9-1 run to go into halftime down 34-24.
The Huskers ended up shooting just 23.3 percent from the field and 1-of-6 from 3-point range while committing seven turnovers with zero assists in the first half. On the other end, Michigan shot 40.6 percent with six made 3-pointers.
“I think it was a good team effort with their defense,” Palmer said. “They were in some good help spots and made us take tough shots, which I took some of them. I think they just did a good job defensively and they got it going on the offensive end. That definitely helped them on the defensive end.”
An alley-oop to Roby on the opening possession of the second half got Nebraska back within single digits, and a free throw by Palmer pulled the Huskers within 40-33 with 14 minutes to play.
But Michigan quickly regained control by answering with a 10-2 run, and a 3-pointer by Muhammed-Ali Abdur-Rahkman gave the Wolverines’ their biggest lead of the day at 61-42 with six minutes remaining.
“We had that little run early where we hit some shots but then we stood around for a long time,” Miles said. “Then I think we got score-sensitive in the second half. We got a little panicky, and Michigan will make you do that.”
The closest NU would get from there was 12 after a three by Glynn Watson got it to 61-49 with 4:30 left in the game, but the final rally was short-lived.
Along with his 16 points, Roby added a team-high seven rebounds and five blocks, while Watson chipped in 10 points. The trio of Wagner (20), Abdur-Rahkman (21), and Robinson (16) combined to score 57 of Michigan’s 77 points on the day.
“We just ran into a buzz saw with Michigan,” Miles said. “But I don't think that undoes what we've already accomplished.”
1. Huskers doomed at 3-point line
When Nebraska rolled up Michigan 72-52 in Lincoln back on Jan. 18, a major reason why was because of the Huskers’ defense on the perimeter.
The Wolverines shot just 4-of-18 from 3-point range in that game, which completely threw them out of offensive rhythm the entire day.
It was a totally opposite story on Friday. Not only did UM drain 11 threes at a 47.8-percent clip, many of those makes came from wide-open shooters.
This same Michigan team made just 3-of-19 threes the day before in an overtime win over Iowa, all three of which coming from Robinson.
“They had us in rotation and they were just running circles around us on defense,” Roby said. “We also weren’t making many shots.”
2. Defensive lapses prove costly
Along with losing countless shooters for open 3-point looks, Nebraska had several other uncharacteristic defensive breakdowns over the course of the day.
When the Huskers were actually closing out on perimeter shooters, they were leaving the cutters all alone at the basket or giving clear paths to the driver off ball screens.
One of the things NU did best in the first meeting with the Wolverines was switching off on screens and seemingly always having a defender glued on the top scoring options.
Given the lopsided final box score, that clearly was not the case on Friday.
“They did a lot more sprint-to-slip this game,” Roby said. “They kind of got us a little confused because they weren’t making contact on their screens, so we didn’t know exactly when to switch.
“So their coach did a good job of putting us in positions like that to make a tough decision; either give up a guy with a full head of steam on a drive or give up Wagner for a three.”
3. Nerves got the best of Nebraska
The weight of Nebraska’s situation coming into Friday’s game, it’s hard to argue that the magnitude of the moment was a bit too much for the Huskers to handle.
Many of the aforementioned mental mistakes were caused by the players admittedly being a little tight and getting flustered when Michigan jumped on them early.
That explains why Nebraska looked nothing like the team that had won 10 of its previous 12 games to close the regular season and even be in the situation to potentially clinch an NCAA berth.
“I don't think there's any question the guys kind of felt a burden of expectation that way,” Miles said. “You could see it and you could see in the reaction afterwards."