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Huskers stunned in opener with 75-74 loss to Western Illinois

After an offseason full of optimism, Nebraska got humbled in a major way right out of the gates in its regular-season opener vs. Western Illinois on Tuesday night.

For the second time in head coach Fred Hoiberg’s three seasons in Lincoln, the Huskers started the year with a loss in a 75-74 upset defeat

Nebraska, which came in as 16-point favorites, was absolutely dominated on the glass to the tune of a 57-37 rebounding disadvantage.

More importantly, that included giving up a whopping 23 offensive boards that resulted in 22 second-chance points for the Leathernecks.

Nebraska has now lost two of its three season openers under head coach Fred Hoiberg.
Nebraska has now lost two of its three season openers under head coach Fred Hoiberg. (Associated Press)

Scoring was a struggle from the opening tip for Nebraska, and it missed its first six shots and didn’t make its first field goal until the 16:26 mark.

The Huskers ended up shooting just 33.3 percent in the first half and only 2-of-11 from 3-point range and trailed 33-32 at halftime.

After WIU extended its lead to as many as seven to open the second half, Alonzo Verge Jr. tied it up at 44-44 on a 3-pointer with just 15 minutes to play.

But the Leathernecks led or had the game tied for more than nine minutes before NU finally went back on top on a Verge layup that made it 70-69 with 2:50 left.

The Huskers went 23-of-31 from the free-throw line on the night, but four of those eight misses came in the final minute of play.

As a result, Western Illinois was able to bury back-to-back 3-pointers with 22 and seven seconds remaining, respectively, to win the game.

Verge finished with game-highs in points (26), rebounds (13), and assists (five), while Bryce McGowens’ 25 points were the most ever in an NU freshman debut.

1. Rebounding is even more concerning than we thought

It was no secret that Nebraska was a bad rebounding team, as it had given up a combined 35 offensive boards in its two exhibition wins over Peru State and Colorado.

But Tuesday night’s performance was even worse than most anyone could have expected.

The Huskers weren’t even remotely competitive on the glass from start to finish, as Western Illinois bullied its way to 23 extra possessions and scored 22 of its 75 points on second-chance opportunities.

“We’re just getting manhandled right now, obviously, on the glass,” Hoiberg said.

Junior forward Derrick Walker, who finished with eight boards, said NU’s rebounding woes were an issue of “toughness.”

“We’ve got to toughen up,” Walker said. “At some point, we’ve got say we’re tired of letting people come in and get our board. We’ve just got to toughen up as a team.”

Unless Nebraska shoots the ball out of its mind, making up for that massive of a rebounding discrepancy will only prove increasingly more difficult as the season goes on.

Something needs to be fixed in that regard very quickly.

2. The ball movement was non-existent

In the exhibition win over Colorado, when Nebraska’s offense looked so potent, it had 17 assists on 30 made baskets.

Against Peru State, the Huskers assisted on 25 of their 36 makes.

On Tuesday, though, NU had just six assists.

No stat was more indicative of how disjointed the offense was all night, as there was never any consistent flow with the basketball.

Hoiberg thought his players got frustrated after missing their first six shots to start the game and then fell into the trap of trying to take matters into their own hands individually and go one-on-one every possession.

Western Illinois caused some problems with a one-through-five switching defense, but the bigger issue was the Huskers not sticking to their plan and trying to play hero ball.

“That’s not us,” Hoiberg said.

3. The adversity arrived, and it hit hard

Nebraska dominated its two exhibitions so much that it never really got tested to the point where the outcome of the game was ever in doubt.

It took one night into the regular season for the first true adversity to come swinging, and it hit the Huskers like a ton of bricks.

Hoiberg has had to try and explain a lot of ugly losses over the previous two years, but he looked as frustrated and disappointed as we’ve seen him after Tuesday night’s defeat.

“We didn’t have a lot of adversity hit us in those first two exhibitions. That hit us square in the face tonight,” Hoiberg said. “We didn’t handle it well.”

“You can go one of two ways from this,” he added. “You can pout and put your heads down or you can learn from it and get better, and that’s what we’re going to have to do these next two days.”

The Huskers have a nucleus of returning veterans who went through plenty of adversity last season, but they are still a relatively new team trying to grow on the fly.

He only has two exhibitions and five months of offseason practices to base it on, but Hoiberg believed the Huskers would respond correctly before their next home game vs. Sam Houston State.

But the more unified and tougher team won the game on Tuesday night, and NU has a lot of growing up to do for this season to be anything close to what it had hoped.


“From what I’ve seen out of them and how we bounced back from disappointing days, I’m confident that we’ll bounce back the right way tomorrow. We have to.”
— Head coach Fred Hoiberg on his confidence that the Huskers would respond from the loss.