NU's run ends in 71-69 Big Ten Tourney loss to Northwestern
After one of its most impressive three-game stretches in years, Nebraska came into the first round of the Big Ten Tournament on Wednesday night as hot as any team in the country.
For the first 25 minutes, all of that momentum traveled to Indianapolis with the No. 13-seed Huskers as they jumped out to a 15-point second-half lead over No. 12 Northwestern.
But, as fate would have it, all of the problems NU had while piling up 21 losses during the regular season came roaring back in what ended up a 71-69 loss at Gainbridge Fieldhouse.
Nebraska led by 14 at halftime and was up 50-35 with 15:28 left to play, but the game fell apart down the stretch. The Huskers scored one field goal over the final 8:43 while the Wildcats shot 53.3 percent in the second half with six 3-pointers.
NU had two chances to tie or win it in the final minute, but Alonzo Verge Jr. and Trey McGowens both missed contested shots in the lane to seal the defeat.
Verge posted an impressive final stat line of 21 points on 7-of-13 shooting, nine assists, seven rebounds, and four steals. But it wasn’t enough to carry the Huskers to the finish line.
Nebraska used an 18-4 run early in the game to push a one-point lead up to as much as 15 after an And-1 by Trey McGowens made it 35-20 with 3:45 left.
A layup by Verge just before the buzzer sent the Huskers into halftime with a commanding 39-25 advantage. Nebraska shot 51.7% from the field and held a 28-6 advantage in paint points.
Derrick Walker scored 11 of his career-high 16 points while Verge racked up nine points, five rebounds, five assists, and three steals in the first half alone.
Northwestern came in ranked seventh nationally with just 9.8 turnovers committed per game. The Wildcats had 10 giveaways in the first half alone (14 for the game), resulting in a 12-2 edge in points off turnovers for NU.
Just when it seemed as if Nebraska was on its way to a blowout victory, Northwestern flipped a switch during the break.
The Wildcats opened the second half by hitting nine of their first 10 shots, and after falling behind by 15 on a Kobe Webster 3-pointer, they answered with a 14-0 run to pull within 50-49 with 12:26 still to play.
A three by Boo Buie put Northwestern up 63-62 with 6:24 remaining, marking its first lead since the 12:58 mark in the first half.
An And-1 by Verge with 8:43 to go helped NU stop the bleeding and go back up by five, but the Huskers wouldn’t make another field goal until a layup by Bryce McGowens with 1:35 on the clock.
Two Verge free throws tied the game at 69-69 with 1:01 left, and then Nebraska got the defensive stop it needed on a missed jumper by Chase Audige with 39 seconds. But another Northwestern offensive rebound - its seventh of the half - gave the Wildcats the ball back, and Audige was fouled with 18 seconds remaining.
Audige only made one of his two free throws, giving the Huskers a chance to take the lead. But Verge drove into the lane and was called for a charge with 10 seconds to go.
Buie then only converted one of his two free throws on the other end, leaving NU down by two to win or tie on the final possession. Instead, Trey McGowens was blocked on a wild shot in traffic to end the game.
Trey McGowens finished with seven points, five rebounds, and two steals in the loss, while Lat Mayen scored nine with seven boards. Webster chipped in eight points off the bench.
Buie ended up scoring 14 of his team-high 16 points in the second half, while Pete Nance also filled up the stat sheet with 14 points, eight rebounds, and eight assists.
After shooting just 27.6% in the first half, Northwestern went 16-for-30 from the field and 6-of-11 from behind the arc after halftime while assisting on 12 of 16 made shots.
On the other hand, Nebraska shot just 31.8% in the second half, including missing 12 of its final 16 attempts.
1. Nebraska reverted to old bad habits down the stretch
Nebraska had looked like a completely different team during the previous four games. The reasons why were that it started playing with exceptional pace and control on offense and had much greater effort on defense.
That formula continued through the first 25 minutes on Wednesday night, but then the Huskers suddenly reverted to all of their old bad habits at the worst possible time.
The ball got stagnant, and as a result, NU started forcing low-percentage shots rather than work to set up good looks. The struggles on offense, like they had so many times this season, impacted Nebraska’s defense intensity.
Northwestern continued to attack the lane, drew fouls, and crashed the offensive glass during its comeback. The Huskers did not answer the challenge, and they gave up six 3-pointers, 12 free throw attempts, and 12 points off of seven Wildcat offensive rebounds in the second half.
"I just thought the swagger and the energy we were playing with (in the first half) was exactly where we needed it,” NU head coach Fred Hoiberg said. “And then, unfortunately, we had a lull, they hit some shots, and they completely took momentum away from us.”
2. Bryce McGowens was clearly not 100 percent
One of the big storylines for Nebraska going into the Big Ten Tournament was the injury status of heralded freshman Bryce McGowens, who missed the win at Wisconsin with a wrist injury he suffered in the previous victory at Ohio State.
Word came out less than an hour before tip-off that McGowens would play and return to the starting lineup against Northwestern, seemingly giving the Huskers a significant boost with their leading scorer at 17.2 points per game.
However, the night was a struggle for McGowens from start to finish. He ended up with six points on just 2-of-10 shooting from the field while missing all three of his 3-pointers.
McGowens, who set the NU freshman record with 160 free throws made and 190 attempts this season, only got to the line twice, where he went 2-for-4.
Hoiberg said McGowens had been very limited during NU’s two practices before traveling to Indianapolis. Still, the coach didn’t have any second thoughts about playing him 32 minutes despite the injury and in-game struggles.
“I did think his timing was a bit off, and then he has a couple shots that are right there and went in and out,” Hoiberg said. “If those go down, it might have been a completely different outcome.”
3. NU got bullied on the boards
Nebraska has been a poor rebounding team all season, but how Northwestern changed the game on the offensive glass was still surprising.
The Huskers were only out-rebounded 37-33 overall, but the Wildcats came up with one extra possession after another with offensive rebounds down the stretch.
From the 10:24 mark of the second half on, Northwestern hauled in seven offensive rebounds for eight second-chance points. The Wildcats had four offensive boards in the nearly 30 minutes before that stretch.
The most critical of those rebounds came in the final minute. With the game tied at 69-69, Nebraska got the stop it needed when Audige missed a pull-up jumper with 39 seconds remaining.
Instead of grabbing the ball and having a chance to win it on the last possession, the Huskers let Julian Roper come up with the rebound. Northwestern called timeout with 32 seconds left and then got to the line for the eventual game-winning free throw by Audige.
“Coach told us before the game: if they win the rebound battle, they're going to win,” Walker said. “If we win it, we're going to win. I don't know what the rebounding number was, but the second half, they really started to crash the boards a lot more, and we didn't rebound it as we were supposed to.”