Once is a coincidence, twice is a pattern. For the second time in a row, Nebraska followed up a gritty performance on the road by coming out flat and uninspired at home, this time getting blown out by No. 23 Illinois, 71-51, on Tuesday night.
Just three days after finally picking up their first Big Ten Conference victory at Penn State on Saturday, the Huskers never led against a Fighting Illini team that came in just 1-4 in league play and on the heels of a three-game losing streak.
Poor shooting, a lack of rebounding and just sloppy overall play on both ends were things that head coach Tim Miles had trouble understanding or explaining after the game, as NU fell to 1-6 in the conference and is winless at home since Dec. 29.
"I don't know, but we certainly have played better on the road than we have in our environment," Miles said. "They seem to be more focused, more energetic and those sorts of things (on the road), and I think we seriously have to look at this group, because it appears to me that there's a stark contrast in how we're playing."
Like they have several times during Big Ten play already, the Huskers (10-10 overall) got off to a very slow start to open the game and quickly fell behind by 11 after a 13-2 run by Illinois (15-5, 2-4) and a three-minute NU scoring drought.
Like it has in each of those games, Nebraska was able to fight back cut the deficit with a 10-2 run of their own. However, the Huskers were seemingly unable to grab a rebound on either end of the floor, especially defensively, and the Illini were quickly able to push their lead back up to double-digits with another 11-1 scoring spurt.
"Coach said it: they were a little more ready than we were, and they hit us first instead of us hitting them first," senior forward Brandon Ubel said. "The aggressor always wins, especially inside the paint and rebounding and all that. We've just got to come ready to play."
Illinois ended up out-rebounding Nebraska 26-10 overall and 12-3 on the offensive glass, in the first half, resulting in eight second-chance points to help give it a 35-23 halftime lead. The Huskers also didn't help matters by going completely cold shooting the ball, as they went the final 8:55 of the half without a field goal and had just seven points off free throws during that span.
"I've coached a lot of games at a lot of different levels, and I don't think that I've ever been as disappointed or embarrassed in one area of the game (rebounding)," Miles said. "You have to give credit to Illinois. They came out, and they hadn't been making 3s, so they had to find another area to score. They hit the offensive glass and gave themselves chances, and they did a really good job.
"But you just have to have more readiness, more personal pride in those things. It seemed like tonight that we allowed too many things on one end of the floor to hurt us on the other. We'd miss a blockout and give up an offensive rebound, come down and turn it over. It'd be the same kid making two mistakes in a row. That tells you a lot about our mentality and where we were. We weren't where we needed to be."
The one thing NU had going for it was its 8-of-9 shooting (88.9 percent) from the free-throw line in the first half, including a perfect 7-of-7 by senior guard Dylan Talley, who led the Huskers with nine of his team-high 16 points in the first half.
Nebraska came back with a little bit more life to open the second half, especially after Illinois coach John Groce was hit with a technical foul for arguing a call two minutes into the half. That helped the Huskers chip away at the deficit and get it to 37-30 with 16 minutes to play.
A dunk by senior center Andre Almeida got the Huskers to 44-38 with just over 13 minutes remaining, but that would be as close as they would get the rest of the night. Maybe the final dagger for NU came when Illinois hit a 3 after a missed traveling call along the baseline, and Miles was hit with a technical foul of his own.
"All I said was, 'Call the travel,'" Miles said. "I had a lot of good ideas for the refs. They should've listened… We made a heck of a lot more mistakes than they (the officials) did, I'll tell you that."
When all was said and done, a seven-point deficit shot up to 14 at 58-44 with less than eight minutes to play and got to as much as 22, which proved to be a hole too big for Nebraska to climb out. That was especially the case because the Huskers - for the second half in a row - failed to make a field goal in the final eight minutes of the second half.
"It changed for a while in the second half, it really did," Miles said. "But it didn't take much for us to - you know, if you're chopping down a tree, we were that tree that was just hanging by one more chop. A couple things didn't go that way late, and we fell over."
When all was said and done, Nebraska was out-rebounded 40-28, shot just 31.8 percent (14-of-44) from the field and 14.3 percent (2-of-14) from beyond the arc. Ubel had 10 points and six rebounds, while Illinois guard D.J. Richardson put up a career-night to lead the charge, finishing with 30 points with six 3-pointers and 9-of-14 shooting from the floor.
Whether they like it or not, the Huskers will have try and reverse their recent home slump on Saturday when they play host to Northwestern, with tip-off set for 2 p.m. CT.
"It's definitely weird," Ubel said. "Traditionally we've always been better at home than on the road. We've just kind of got to look at what each one of us individually are doing the night before, the day before and really figure out the best we can get ready."
Around the rim
***After being named the Big Ten Freshman of the Week on Monday, guard Shavon Shields ended the night with just two points on 0-2 shooting from the field and 2-of-6 shooting from the free-throw line before fouling out with just over five minutes left in the game. Miles said he wasn't worried about Shields' bad night, though.
"I think it was being a freshman," Miles said. "I think it was him being a freshman. Just that, now you've played pretty good, and now a hopped-up opponent is going to come after you, and I don't think he responded very well. But he'll learn from that."
***Nebraska committed 14 turnovers to just five assists in the loss, with seven of the 12 players to see the court committing at least one turnover. Only three Huskers recorded an assist.
"You could just see with how quick they were to the ball and how sloppy they were with our ball handling - we had five assists and 14 turnovers," Miles said. "Three guys had assists. Seven guys had turnovers. Almost anybody that played had a turnover."
***Miles said Richardson's 30 points were just one of many issues for his team on Tuesday night. The total was the most by an opposing player against NU this season.
"It was like triage," he said. "It was one problem after another after another. He was part of the hemorrhaging."