It’s been well documented how successful Big Ten home teams have been during conference play this season.
Road teams have won five games through 34 conference games. That’s an unusual amount of home dominance, and it continued as the Huskers fell short against Northwestern by a score of 62-57.
Nebraska’s formula in its two Big Ten victories against Purdue and Iowa were simple. Lock down the big man by throwing double and triple teams in the paint and force outside shooters to knock down 3-pointers.
It worked to perfection against the Hawkeyes and Boilermakers, and the strategy nearly allowed the Huskers to pull off a road upset in Bloomington. Northwestern doesn’t have a big man that requires attention like Iowa’s Luka Garza or Purdue’s Trevion Williams, so in theory Nebraska could pay more attention to limiting the Wildcat’s effectiveness from 3-point range on Saturday afternoon.
And in theory, Northwestern (6-9, 1-4 Big Ten) is exactly the team that would crumble with efficient defense on outside shooters. The Wildcats entered the game against Nebraska shooting 31% on 3-pointers, good for 11th in the Big Ten. Nebraska, meanwhile, limits opponents to 27.9% from 3-point range, the best mark in the Big Ten.
But theories only get you so far, and Northwestern took advantage of Nebraska’s lazy perimeter defense en-route to a stellar first half shooting the ball.
In the game’s first few minutes Nebraska had its way with Northwestern, getting out in transition to avoid Northwestern’s zone and knocking down shots. A 3-pointer by junior guard Dachon Burke Jr. extended Nebraska’s lead to 7-2 with 17:13 to go, which is notable because Burke Jr.’s bucket started a 40-20 run to close the half for the Wildcats.
Wildcat senior guard Pat Spencer, a 29% 3-point shooter, had eight of his 14 points ,including two 3-pointers, over the next five minutes to help Northwestern rebuild the lead.
Statistically below-average Wildcat shooters like senior forward AJ Turner (16.1% from 3-point range) and freshman forward Robbie Beran (33% from 3-point range) knocked down two 3-pointers each as the Wildcats extended their lead to 28-19.
Northwestern was getting wide open looks and knocking them down, and in the first half Nebraska simply didn’t have the offensive firepower to keep up. The Wildcat zone gave Nebraska fits due to Northwestern’s length and Nebraska slowing the tempo, and Northwestern closed a 42-27 first-half advantage in which it shot 57% on 3-pointers and 52% from the field with back-to-back 3-pointers from sophomore forward Miller Kopp.
However, Hoiberg turned up Nebraska’s defensive intensity in the second half as the Wildcats allowed the Huskers back in the game with an ice-cold second-half shooting performance.
Sophomore guard Cam Mack proved instrumental in Nebraska’s second-half rally, and a nice pass followed by a circus layup from junior guard Thorir Thorbjarnarson cut Northwestern’s lead to single digits with 15 minutes left.
Mack added two of his team-high 11 points just over three minutes later, as freshman forward Kevin Cross found Mack cutting through the Wildcat zone and Mack finished the layup while being fouled. The ensuing free throw made it 51-42 with 11:40 to go.
Then, Nebraska went cold. The Huskers failed to score over the next three minutes of game time while Northwestern managed five points. Nebraska didn’t hit another field goal until a senior guard Matej Kavas hit a 3-pointer with seven minutes to go.
And then Nebraska went cold again.
Kavas sank another 3-pointer with 3:14 to go which made it a 60-51 game, the first field goal the Huskers made since Kavas’ three nearly four minutes ago.
Despite Nebraska’s offensive struggles, Northwestern remained just as cold shooting the ball. On the next possession, Cross drilled a 3-pointer from the top of the key to cut Northwestern’s lead to 60-54 with 2:30 to play.
The Wildcats continued to do all they could to keep Nebraska in the game, missing the front end of three consecutive one-and-ones over the next 1:30 of game time. Cross and Mack were unable to convert on the first two possessions following Northwestern free throw misses, but Mack banked in a 3-pointer to make it a one-possession game with under a minute to play.
Northwestern continued working on its near-collapse on the next possession, as the Wildcats missed a 3-pointer to give Nebraska an opportunity to tie the game. Nebraska set a double-screen for Burke Jr. for a game-tying 3-point attempt, but Spencer deflected (with the aid of a potential foul?) the effort away.
Two Northwestern free throws iced a 62-57 victory, a game in which the Wildcats tried to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory over-and-over in the second half. If the Huskers don’t go cold for two 3-minute stretches late in the second half, this is a game that Nebraska could’ve easily won.
Northwestern shot 26% from the field, 13% on 3-pointers and missed three straight one-and-ones in the second half. The Wildcats scored 20 second-half points and left the door open for Nebraska to squeak out a victory, but the Huskers failed to take advantage.
The Huskers’ next game is Tuesday, Jan. 14 in Columbus against Ohio State, which currently is ranked No. 11 in the country but lost to Wisconsin and Maryland this week. Tipoff is at 5:30 p.m. and the game will be televised nationally on FS1.