Huskers' upset bid falls short in 77-72 OT loss to No. 6 Illini
In a season defined by adversity since the very beginning, Nebraska faced arguably its most challenging test yet on Friday against Illinois, the No. 6-ranked team in the country.
For 40 minutes and then some, it looked as if the Huskers might finally catch a break and pull off the biggest upset of the college basketball season.
Instead, a jumped final possession to end regulation and just three points in overtime turned NU’s most impressive effort of the year end in an all-too-familiar result, as the Fighting Illini pulled away for a 77-72 win in overtime.
Illinois’ stars came through when it mattered the most. Ayo Dosunmu scored 24 of his game-high 31 points in the second half and overtime, and Kofi Cockburn dominated the paint with 21 points, 13 rebounds, and four blocks.
Lat Mayen (16), Trey McGowens (15), and Teddy Allen (15) combined to score 46 of NU’s 72 points, but the Huskers were outscored 8-2 over the final 2:34 of regulation and went 0-for-5 from the field in the extra period.
As a result, Nebraska’s much-maligned Big Ten conference losing streak increased to 26, dating back to last season.
Nebraska (4-12 overall, 0-9 Big Ten) couldn’t have gotten off to a better start for the second game in a row. With some efficient offense and relentless defense, the Huskers jumped out to a 9-0 lead at the first media timeout.
But Illinois (14-5, 10-3) fired right back with an 11-2 run of its own over the next four minutes to tie it up, but NU never trailed in the first half and went into halftime up 34-33.
The lead could have been larger, as Nebraska went up 32-24 on a basket by Teddy Allen with 4:11 left. But the Illini responded with a quick four-point possession and closed the half on a 9-2 run.
The Huskers shot 44 percent in the first half, but they also scored just two points over the final 4:11 to allow Illinois to trim the lead down to one.
Illinois took its first lead of the night on a dunk by Cockburn on the first possession of the second half and eventually went up 44-39 on a dunk by Dosunmu four minutes later.
Nebraska responded with a 13-2 rally to reclaim the lead, and it would be a game of runs until the final possession.
After a layup by Dosunmu tied the game up at 66-66 with 20 seconds remaining, NU called a timeout with 16 seconds on the clock.
The play head coach Fred Hoiberg drew up didn’t go at all as planned, however, as Trey McGowens held the ball 35 feet from the hoop until the final seconds and didn’t even get a shot off before the buzzer.
While six free throws by Allen and McGowens kept the Huskers within one possession for the majority of overtime, NU couldn’t make a field goal, and Trent Frazier iced the game with two last free throws with five seconds to play.
Nebraska will continue its grueling schedule this weekend when it travels out to take on Penn State on Sunday for a 2 p.m. CT tip on BTN.
1. The effort was phenomenal, but the execution late was not
For 39 minutes and 44 seconds, Nebraska did everything it needed to do to pull off its biggest upset since No-Sit Sunday.
But when the pressure was at its highest, the Huskers completely collapsed.
I asked Hoiberg after the game what was supposed to happen on the final possession of regulation. He declined to go into any detail, saying only that guys didn’t execute their assignments.
The offense never recovered in overtime. NU missed all five of its shots in the extra five minutes, and none of those attempts were particularly good.
Hoiberg spent much of his post-game press conference praising his team’s effort, especially given the physical and mental adversity they’d had to overcome with a jam-packed schedule.
As he should. The Huskers were inspired, cheering each other on all night and executing their game plans on both ends of the floor as best we’ve seen all season.
Nebraska should be proud of how it played on Friday night, but in the end, moral victories aren’t going to keep this group’s spirits afloat.
NU desperately needs a Big Ten win, and it just squandered its best opportunity to get one in now 402 days (and counting).
2. Mayen has found his shot
Lauded by his coaches and teammates as the best 3-point shooter on the team, Mayen went through a six-game stretch earlier this season where he couldn’t buy a three.
Starting with his 1-for-3 performance in the loss to Georgia Tech on Dec. 9, 2020, the junior forward ended up making just 2-of-22 from behind the arc during that stretch. That included going 0-for-6 at Wisconsin and 1-of-6 at Ohio State.
But something seems to have clicked with the former junior college transfer over the past six games.
After hitting 3-of-8 threes with a career-high 16 points against Illinois, Mayen has now made 17 for his last 39 attempts (43.5 percent). He’s also scored in double figures in the past five games.
Nebraska’s offense changes so much when it has consistent 3-point shooting on the floor, and Mayen’s resurgence would be such a help for the Huskers to finally get over the hump.
3. Welcome back, Thor
One of the most pleasant surprises of last season, few players had vanished from Nebraska’s rotation more than Thorir Thorbjarnarson.
After starting the first seven games of the year, the senior guard’s role and production decreased by the week.
Since the start of Big Ten play, Thorbjarnarson had scored a combined 18 points and shot just 9.1 percent from 3-point range in Nebraska’s first eight league games.
But Friday night was a different story, as Thorbjarnarson knocked down his first two 3-pointers and tied his season-high with eight points in 17 minutes of work off the bench.
For a team that needs all the offensive firepower it can get, getting its most Big Ten tested player on the roster going would provide a significant boost.