If Nebraska men’s basketball was reeling in any way, shape or form following a devastating loss to Ohio State on Sunday, it certainly hadn’t materialized.
Deep into the second half, the Huskers were well within striking distance and going punch-for-punch with No. 10 Michigan State. Nebraska found itself down 62-54 with about six-and-a-half minutes remaining, all while managing a road environment head coach Fred Hoiberg referred to postgame as “one of the hardest places to play in the country.”
Nebraska needed a catalyst for a late run, and Hoiberg schemed the perfect half-court set to provide a spark.
Senior guard Kobe Webster took the ball down the right side of the court with Michigan State in a zone look. Junior forward Derrick Walker came up to nearly Webster’s opposite at the left elbow, screening the defender in the process. The forward afforded Webster space to find freshman guard Bryce McGowens wide open on the left wing, freed by Walker’s screen.
McGowens’ shot rimmed out, and Michigan State responded immediately with a 3-pointer from junior forward Malik Hall. A potential two-possession game flipped to a double-digit Spartan lead in a matter of seconds.
Michigan State held a double-digit lead for the remainder of the contest and won 79-67.
“The ball stopped going in the hoop, and [Michigan State] took advantage at the other end,” Hoiberg said postgame. “This is one of the hardest places to play in the country and we still gave ourselves a chance.”
The Huskers’ first-half efforts were a big reason why. Entering Wednesday night’s contest, Hoiberg stressed the importance of limiting Michigan State both on the glass and in transition. While Nebraska was ultimately outrebounded 40-27, it kept the Spartans a touch out-of-sorts offensively throughout the opening 20 minutes.
Nebraska made its first seven field goals while holding the Spartans to one of two extremes: a made field goal or a turnover. Michigan State turned the ball over 11 times in its first 21 possessions, yet found itself down just 20-19 through the contest’s first 10 minutes thanks to quality shot-making when it didn’t shoot itself in the foot.
Even when Michigan State settled down, Nebraska responded well. Michigan State built multiple five-point leads over the last 10 minutes of the first half, but Nebraska immediately responded by playing through Walker inside.
When a thunderous dunk by senior center Marcus Bingham Jr. brought Michigan State’s lead to 29-24 with 7:09 remaining in the first half, it was Walker that finished inside on the ensuing possession. As the Spartans attempted to go on a run over the final four minutes of the half, Walker quelled the crowd immediately with a running one-handed finish.
Nebraska trailed 38-34 at halftime led by Walker’s 10 points. Defensively, the Huskers forced 12 turnovers while allowing just four fastbreak points.
“I loved our juice and our energy early,” Hoiberg said. “I thought it was exactly where it needed to be.”
Then the ball stopped going in the hoop, a tale as old as time for Hoiberg’s Nebraska squads.
Be it unlucky bounces like the aforementioned McGowens 3-pointer, slow passes or stagnant offensive movement, the Huskers established next-to-no offensive momentum over the final 20 minutes. The play of their highest-usage guards on the night manifests this.
Senior guard Alonzo Verge Jr., despite five assists and four rebounds, posted just five points on an inefficient 2-of-10 shooting. With Nebraska down 60-52 with 7:46 remaining in the second half, Verge opted to take a transition 3-pointer instead of slowing the offense down and was promptly pulled by Hoiberg.
McGowens, after a hot start, cooled significantly. The highly-touted freshman finished with 13 points on 5-of-16 shooting with a team high five turnovers. Nebraska’s three starting guards, including sophomore Keisei Tominaga, combined to shoot 8-of-30 from the field. The trio accounted for half of the Huskers’ total field goal attempts.
“We gotta limit the bad possessions, bad shots. We’re just going to continue to substitute on them and get ourselves to understand that,” Hoiberg said.
Inconsistent production from the Huskers’ starting guards led to a poor second half offensively that allowed Michigan State to run away from the game. Nebraska shot below 35% from the field as Michigan State opened up a 70-56 advantage with 4:18 to play, and only made its shooting splits respectable in garbage time.
Walker led Nebraska with a team-high 16 points on 8-of-9 from the field, one of the few positives from yet another Big Ten loss, reaffirming Hoiberg’s commitment to use the Tennessee transfer as a primary playmaker in the post.
“We just gotta continue to make it a point to get it to him down there. He’s just been so efficient for us, obviously our most efficient player when it comes to shooting the basketball,” Hoiberg said. “It’s uncharacteristic for Derrick to have four turnovers but when the ball’s in his hands good things happen.”
Webster and freshman guard CJ Wilcher each had big performances off the bench for the second consecutive game, both finishing in double-figures. Webster, in particular, proved his worth as a valuable rotational piece with a number of critical offensive plays.
It wasn’t enough, though.
Few expected Nebraska to emerge victorious on Wednesday, and perhaps slight improvement can be taken as a positive as the Huskers moved through the bulk of Big Ten play. Still, for that improvement to be realized, Nebraska has to handle business away from Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Nebraska will take its 1-25 record in true road games under Hoiberg to Rutgers, a notoriously inhospitable road venue in the conference, on Saturday.