Nebraska had its best chance yet to finally pick up its first ever Big Ten Conference win when it had Illinois on the ropes in the final minutes on Saturday, but it simply couldn't make enough plays in crunch time to get it done.
After leading at halftime and for the majority of the second half, the Huskers couldn't find a way to score for the final two minutes of the game, allowing the Fighting Illini pull away from a tie game and hand NU a 59-54 loss in Champaign, Ill.
"I thought today's game we had all the opportunities, we just didn't finish the plays," head coach Doc Sadler said on his post-game radio interview on the Husker Sports Network. "I don't really know about the confidence factor, but the fact of the matter is you've got to get yourself in position, we got ourselves in position, and we missed two opportunities for lay-ups and missed two free throws. You're not going to win the game when you leave six points on the floor in the last minute."
A pair of free throws by senior guard Brandon Richardson tied the game up at 54-54 with just 2:19 left to play, but that would be the final time Nebraska would get on the scoreboard the rest of the day.
The Huskers had a chance to take the lead with just over a minute left in the game but ended up committing one of their 20 turnovers. Illinois quickly capitalized on a floater in the lane by guard Joseph Bertrand with 53.6 seconds to go, but he was called for a charge after the shot that sent NU's Toney McCray to the line without any time coming off the clock.
The senior guard couldn't hit either of his two free throws, but junior forward Brandon Ubel came down with an offensive rebound after the second miss and Nebraska called timeout to regroup with 50.6 to play.
Even with time to draw up a play, the Huskers ended up getting a tough 3-point attempt from senior point guard Bo Spencer that fell short, and Illini guard Brandon Paul got the rebound and was sent to the line after a flagrant foul by Richardson with 21.5 remaining.
Paul hit both of his free throws to put Illinois up 58-54, and then center Meyers Leonard added another free throw after being fouled on the ensuing inbounds pass with 20.7 left.
With one last chance to keep the game alive, a pass bounced off junior center Jorge Brian Diaz along the baseline and out of bounds, giving the ball back to Illinois and shutting the door on any hopes for a comeback.
"They made their plays and we didn't make ours," Sadler said. "I thought we got two really good opportunities, and I thought we had a good play called out of the timeout with the game tied and had a chance to get a lay-up, and we just didn't execute it. Then we come back down and it's a four-point ball game, and we great penetration and get a dump off and we don't execute that."
The game couldn't have started out much worse for Nebraska, as it opened with four straight turnovers and didn't even get off its first shot until three minutes into the first half.
The Huskers didn't get their first points until a basket by Ubel with 15:49 left in the half, and found themselves down 7-2 after the game's first five minutes.
However, in spite of the horrible start, Nebraska was able to keep the score within reach, partly due to Illinois playing almost as poorly in the early goings. With the Fighting Illini letting them hang around, the Huskers eventually got hot and put together an 11-0 run and went up 13-7 on a bucket by Richardson with just over 10 minutes to go in the half.
After Illinois reclaimed the lead and went back up 22-18 on a 3-pointer by guard Tracy Abrams with 4:28 left, the Huskers held the Illini scoreless the rest of the half and closed with a 7-0 run to go into halftime up 25-22 despite committing 12 first-half turnovers.
A big reason for NU's turnaround in the first half was the return of Diaz and junior guard Dylan Talley, who came off the bench for their first action since the TCU game on Dec. 10. Diaz had nine points and three rebounds in 22 minutes in his return, while Talley played 28 minutes and scored six points.
"Well, we probably played them a little too much," Sadler said. "It just adds so much to our team when have those two guys out of the floor, and they're only going to get better. Some of the turnovers maybe was because of a lack of being out there on Dylan's part, but even at that, it was good to see them out there."
Spencer led Nebraska with 13 points, while McCray finished with 12 points and Richardson added 10. Bertrand was the difference maker for Illinois, though, as he ended the day with a game-high 25 points on 11-of-12 shooting.
While the Huskers played much better in all areas than they had in their three previous conference losses, there was little consolation in falling to 0-4 in the league and remaining in the cellar of the Big Ten standings.
"The 20 turnovers were something that I told the team, the first five minutes of the game and the first five minutes of the second half is what we've got to look at that not necessarily cost us the game, but had a big part of us not being on the winning side today," Sadler said. "It's very frustrating. The guys played hard, but you can't go on the road and turn it over 20 times. You can't win at home turning it over 20 times. But that's what we did."