With just over 16 minutes remaining in the second half of Nebraska’s Thursday night matchup with Illinois, Fighting Illini freshman guard Andre Curbelo appeared to be leading a doomed fast break.
If Curbelo’s erratic, uncoordinated drive resulted in a turnover as it looked destined to be, it could’ve resulted in a notable, but not seismic shift in the game’s momentum. Nebraska would take possession of the ball down 46-36, in a game in which the Huskers had been at least resilient following every Fighting Illini advance.
Instead Curbelo corralled the ball as he fell to the ground and flipped the ball to sophomore center Kofi Cockburn from the seat of his pants. As he’s known to do, Cockburn threw down an emphatic dunk as Nebraska watched helplessly.
It was the theme of sorts in Illinois’ 86-70 triumph over Nebraska. The Huskers, as they’ve done for a majority of their contests, competed in the first half before turning lifeless in the second. Illinois could seemingly do no wrong even without the services of sophomore guard Ayo Dosunmu, having its way against a once-stout Nebraska defense.
The story of Thursday night’s game has seemingly been told a million times over in the era of Husker head coach Fred Hoiberg, yet it’s a more forgiving story given the contest was Nebraska’s 10th in 20 days. It’s almost a given that at some point during a stretch like that, a team’s play will begin to regress dramatically on at least one end of the floor.
Glaring inefficiencies on both ends ultimately resulted in the Huskers’ demise.
“I never thought we got into a rhythm tonight. I thought early on, you look at our numbers, we played much more selfish than we had been,” Hoiberg said postgame. “We just couldn’t get anything going.”
Hoiberg is, of course, speaking to the Huskers’ offensive struggles against an Illini defense rated 14th in the country according to Kenpom. Nebraska finished with 70 points on 44% shooting from the field, decent splits against a statistically elite defense.
The Huskers had just eight assists against Illinois, half as many as they had in Tuesday’s loss to Penn State. In addition, Nebraska turned the ball over 17 times and shot just 23.8% from 3-point range. Junior guard Teddy Allen, Nebraska’s leading scorer, had five points against Illinois after a 41-point explosion against the Nittany Lions.
“Things were going really well the other night, obviously with Teddy having it going. I mean, we scored 70 [points],” Hoiberg said. “I didn’t think it was a great rhythm game for us… We gave up 86, that’s what we need to talk about.”
For the entirety of the first half and a period in the second half, though, Nebraska’s inefficient offense and poor defense was more than enough to keep it in the game. Under a minute before Cockburn’s dunk from Curbelo’s fantastic feed, Husker junior guard Trey McGowens hit a runner in the lane to cut Illinois’ lead to 42-36.
Ultimately, though, Nebraska made the same mistakes that led to its loss against Penn State on Thursday night. Against much better competition and without a superhuman offensive performance to keep it afloat, Nebraska fell apart fast.
The Huskers never got closer than six points in the second half, and Illinois built an advantage as great as 21 points. The Fighting Illini scored 50 points in the second half, the most points the Huskers have conceded in the final 20 minutes since December.
It wasn’t as if Illinois had a dominant shooting performance that led to its high point total. Illinois shot 48% from the field and, like Nebraska, was very poor from long range. The Fighting Illini shot worse from deep than Nebraska, converting on just 4-of-23 attempts.
Much like the loss to Penn State, Nebraska’s opponent put it away on the boards. Illinois grabbed 43 rebounds to the Huskers’ 29, and held a 12-to-5 advantage on the offensive glass. The Fighting Illini had 46 points in the paint and 12 second-chance points, further indicative that Illinois outclassed Nebraska inside.
What upset Hoiberg in particular when it came to Nebraska’s defensive effort was the Huskers’ transition defense, which was once again lacking. Illinois outscored Nebraska 16-2 on fastbreak points, an area in which the Huskers should be thriving under Hoiberg. Add it all up, and it’s another disappointing performance from a defense which appeared to be turning a corner following the team’s COVID-19 pause.
“We’re not getting many offensive rebounds right now, and we’re getting exposed in transition… That can’t happen,” Hoiberg said. “We just gotta get back [in transition], I thought for a stretch we did a good job early on… We didn’t do as good a job as we needed to, and that’s where [Illinois] gets comfortable.”
Early on, Nebraska’s defense did find success playing aggressively. The Huskers were closing out on Fighting Illini shooters and had success fronting Cockburn in the paint. It resulted in a sloppy, chippy first half that saw five technical fouls, 22 combined turnovers and 20 personal fouls.
Nebraska just couldn’t translate that intensity into the second half, as Illinois took advantage of repeated chances to hammer a team that took it to overtime just days prior. Cockburn finished with 24 points on 8-of-10 shooting and seven rebounds and Curbelo nearly posted a triple-double with 10 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists.
Freshman guard Adam Miller had 18 points and sophomore forward Jacob Grandison had 14 points and seven rebounds.
“It just wasn’t there tonight, the edge, the juice you have to play with against a team like that,” Hoiberg said. “We knew they were going to come out foaming at the mouth and we just didn’t match their energy.”