Both teams were streaking, but in opposite directions.
The No. 25 Illinois Fighting Illini men’s basketball team had won four straight games while the Nebraska Huskers had lost three in a row. They each had their similarities. Early season struggles, bruising post players and, on Tuesday night at least, 3-point shooting. Yet, the differences of experience, discipline and finishing were never more apparent.
The lethal combination of junior center Kofi Cockburn and senior guard Trent Frazier helped to stave off the Nebraska upset bid. Despite tying the game inside the final four minutes and a 19- point showing from Nebraska sophomore guard Bryce McGowens, a late collapse by the Huskers made for a 81-71 loss, their ninth in 10 games.
“They hit the big ones there at the end of the game where it mattered most,” Nebraska men’s basketball head coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Our effort was phenomenal that we fought them all the way to the end just got to execute down the stretch.”
In the beginning, shots fell at a frenetic pace as Nebraska began its potential scalp.
It was like an oasis of shooting in a desert of an offensive season for the Huskers as they started 6-of-8 from the field and 4-of-4 from 3-point range. Nebraska led 16-4 but during the next five minutes, the Huskers struggled to find its initial firepower.
“The last four we’ve gotten off to really good starts,” Hoiberg said. “I thought we did a great job of finding shooters, you know assisted to make four of our first five baskets.”
Nebraska made just one of its next eight shots as Illinois went on a 7-0 run to cut the Nebraska lead to 19-17 with 10:52 remaining in the first half. The Fighting Illini started feeding Cockburn, who only had four points in the first eight minutes, and closed the first half with eight points and six rebounds.
It was Cockburn who gave Illinois its first lead of the game, vacating Nebraska junior forward Derrick Walker from the paint for the easy layup. Moments later, the lead grew to 25-21 following a jumper by Frazier. The Husker offense was a deer in the headlights while it seemed that the sleeping Fighting Illini giant had awoken.
A 3-pointer by Illinois senior guard Alfonso Plummer made it a 11-0 Fighting Illini run in 4:42 of action and a 18-2 run over the previous seven minutes. In contrast, Nebraska had a seven minute stretch of its own in which it failed to make a basket. The end to that drought came at the hand of Cockburn, as he forcefully pinned a McGowens layup against the backboard, but Cockburn was whistled for goaltending.
Then, sophomore guard Keisei Tominaga breathed new life into Nebraska. First, he whipped a beautiful pass into a back-cutting senior guard Alonzo Verge Jr. Then, he stole the basketball by diving onto the floor and signaling for a timeout to help the Huskers retain possession. Tominaga sank an 18-foot jumper the next time down the floor and moments later junior forward Lat Mayen put Nebraska ahead with a 3-pointer.
Despite all of the struggles of the middle 12 minutes, the Huskers closed the first half on an 11-0 run and took a 34-31 lead into the intermission. Nebraska outscored Illinois 16-4 in the first four minutes and 11-0 in the last four minutes of the half. During the other 12 minutes, the Fighting Illini dominated Nebraska 27-7.
“We played with a lot more energy,” McGowens said. “We dialed in in all aspects of the game tonight. We played hard.”
Each team traded blows early in the second half. None was bigger than that of McGowens. A jump hook from freshman forward Eduardo Andre carelessly rolled off the left side of the rim and McGowens promptly escorted the ball to the floor with a highlight slam.
An 8-1 run for Illinois led to its largest lead of the second half at 51-47 with 11:21 to play. Four times the Huskers cut the deficit to one. Finally, a Walker put back drew a timeout from Illinois with the Fighting Illini leading 59-58. Yet, the lethal combination of Cockburn and Fraizer struck again as Cockburn found Frazier for a 3-pointer after the timeout.
A pair of free throws from McGowens tied it at 65 but a 7-0 run followed for Illinois, all with Cockburn on the bench. One more 3-pointer from Frazier to put the Fighting Illini ahead by double digits sealed it for Illinois and sent the fans to the exits.
For the most part, Walker and the Huskers were able to hold Cockburn in check. Cockburn averaged 22.5 points and 12.5 rebounds per game entering Tuesday’s contest and finished with 16 points and 13 rebounds.
“I thought [Walker] battled Kofi and made him work for everything that he got,” Hoiberg said. “Derrick is doing a little bit of everything for us right now.”
Hoiberg also mentioned how badly the team felt the absence of Walker against Rutgers. Nebraska’s head coach noted that in large part the run by Rutgers to take control of the previous Nebraska contest was due to Walker coming off the floor with his third foul. Nobody spoke higher of Walker than Illinois head coach Brad Underwood.
“I thought Derrick Walker’s defense was outstanding,” Underwood said postgame. “I think he’s one of the best interior defenders in the league.”
Underwood wasn’t the only one to shower praise on the opposing team’s top performer. Hoiberg did the same for Frazier.
“Trent Frazier has been one of the best guards in this league for a long time,” Hoiberg said.
Frazier finished with 29 points and shot 50% from both the floor and 3-point range in the victory for Illinois. He accomplished all of that in 38 minutes with only a single turnover.
“Trent Frazier,” Underwood said. “I keep running out of superlatives.”
After Nebraska’s 4-of-4 start from 3-point range, Nebraska finished 2-of-8. That was a win for Underwood who feared Nebraska would start hot considering how much the team had struggled as of late. The Huskers 12 3-point attempts were by far the lowest number of attempts in a game this season even though the 50% shooting mark was the team’s second highest thus far.
“They eliminate the three as well as any team in the country,” Hoiberg said. “They drop Kofi into the restricted area and force you into the mid-range.”
The road doesn’t get any easier for Nebraska as next up is No. 7 Purdue. The Boilermakers are 13-2 and the Huskers travel to Mackey Arena on Friday.
“There’s some positives that we can take out of this game,” Hoiberg said. “Hopefully we close one of these out to get confidence to know that we can do it.”