For Nebraska men’s basketball junior guard Teddy Allen in the first half, the basket was one of those comically sized funnels one would find at Adventureland, or perhaps a Six Flags. In short, everything was going down the drain.
Allen ended the first 20 minutes with 21 points on 8-of-17 shooting, though many of those misses came when the guard cooled off near the end of the half.
While Allen’s aforementioned scoring outburst helped keep the game close in the first half, and even gave Nebraska a solid lead early, head coach Fred Hoiberg substituted the hot-shooting guard out only six minutes into the game. Though it appeared strange at the time, Hoiberg had a reason for it.
“It’s great in one hand, but in the other hand you get a bit stagnant, you just stand around and watch, when a guy gets going like that,” Hoiberg said postgame. “Then, when things shut down and things get a little tough, that’s when the movement has to kick back in.”
Yet, despite Allen’s incredible first half performance, the halftime score was 36-34 in favor of Michigan. Another early second half collapse, Nebraska’s Sword of Damocles, fell upon the Huskers and doomed the side to a winless record in the Big Ten after two games.
It’s an all too familiar narrative for the Huskers. An early second half collapse that turned a close game into a blowout. That would be the story of the game, were it not for what happened next.
No, Hoiberg’s crew didn’t win. That was always a difficult proposition. However, instead of collapsing, Nebraska made sure that for a few more minutes, the game still hung in the balance.
“When the defense shifted in front of the other bench in the second half, I think we got quiet. I didn’t think our communication was as good or where it needed to be. And then we got it, once we got our swagger going,” Hoiberg said. “...Then all of a sudden we started talking again. We gotta have that...We gotta do a better job overall in the second half.”
Six minutes into the second half, Michigan senior forward Isaiah Livers hit a 3-pointer — the score now 46-41 Wolverines. Only three minutes later that lead ballooned up to 56-44, a 10-3 run capped on either end by 3-pointers by Livers.
Three days earlier, Nebraska held Wisconsin for a solid half, and was looking to compete for the next 20 minutes after that. However, despite taking the lead six minutes into the second half, a grueling five minutes of play saw the Badgers up 48-33, leaving virtually no chance of a Husker comeback.
Five minutes into the second half against Creighton, junior guard Trey McGowens had just hit a 3-pointer to bring the score to55-51. Five minutes later Creighton had laid waste to Nebraska, going on a 23-2 run and ripping a close game from its intrastate rivals.
The losses to Georgia Tech and Nevada further illustrate this pattern. Despite spirited first half performances, the Huskers simply cannot play in the second half. Against the sheer quality of Michigan, currently ranked 10th in the nation in adjusted offense according to kenpom.com, that collapse felt inevitable once again.
Then, sophomore guard Dalano Banton, one of Nebraska’s greatest assets, took a shot from behind the arc. Banton’s effort went in, his only made 3-pointer of the game, which brought the score to 56-47 in favor of the Wolverines. More importantly, it broke Michigan’s scoring run. Instead of being down some insurmountable score, with six minutes left to go in the game the Huskers were only staring at a four-point deficit, a run sparked by Banton’s 3-pointer.
The lance for Nebraska’s comeback was McGowens. Despite having a quiet first half, going 0-of-3 from the field and hardly being a factor on the court, the guard exploded when Nebraska needed him to. His two made 3-pointers weren’t pretty. It’s hard to imagine that his contested, rather cramped shots were part of any gameplan Hoiberg had cooked up. But, even fringe cases are expected to happen, and McGowens proved he can provide crucial minutes in crunch time situations.
The wheels came off from there, but Nebraska proved something nevertheless with its slow, small comeback. Time and time again this season against quality opposition, the Huskers were not able to reclaim games after large runs. Part of the reason for this is simply team quality. Against tougher opposition like Wisconsin and Creighton, the collapse came faster and harder than against the likes of Georgia Tech, with the former being far better than the latter.
However, Michigan is top-tier opposition in every sense of the phrase, boasting a still-unbeaten record after seven games and handling Penn State two Sundays ago. The Wolverines on the face of it are closer to Wisconsin or Creighton than they are to Georgia Tech.
Despite the full roster shakeup, some echoes from last year’s box score replicate themselves in this year’s game. Last year against the Huskers at Pinnacle Bank Arena, Michigan shot very well from inside the arc at 65.6% on 32 shots despite only averaging a 54.1% 2-point field goal percentage on the season. This isn’t to say 54.1% is bad, of course. In fact, it was 24th in college basketball by the end of the year. Michigan, too, took more 2-pointers that game than its average distribution.
One year later, one would expect the added length of Banton and freshman center Eduardo Andre, along with the experience of sophomore forward Yvan Ouedraogo, to make a tangible difference in the Wolverines’ shooting percentage inside the arc.
The impact was literally nothing, actually. The Wolverines again shot 65.6% from inside the arc on 32 attempts. This is somewhat unfair, however, considering the Wolverines’ average 2-point field goal percentage has jumped from 54.1% to a full 61.1%, good for 11th in the nation.
The turnover battle was another interesting theater for the Huskers. Over the last few weeks, the Huskers have looked less and less like the high-energy team early in the season that held one of the nation’s highest steal and non-steal turnover rates. However, against Michigan, the Huskers were able to come out on top easily, with only eight turnovers to the Wolverines’ 15.
While the final scoreline may not divulge much, the Christmas game against Michigan could be a step forward for the Huskers. Where in the last few weeks, the 3-pointer by Livers would’ve beget calamity, it instead gave Nebraska a spirit to fight back. And that spirit may be the difference as the season wears on.
“I am proud of the guys for not folding and getting right back into the game and giving ourselves a chance. And again, it’s gonna take us getting over the hump and hopefully getting some confidence to see what it takes to win these games,” Hoiberg said. “We’re capable. We’re more than capable.”