Nebraska men’s basketball’s Big Ten losing streak is now officially more than a year old.
The Huskers dropped their 22nd consecutive conference game on Sunday evening, an 84-76 affair in favor of the Indiana Hoosiers. Head coach Archie Miller’s unit led Nebraska by as many as 18 points in the first half, but the Huskers rallied to take a lead late in the second.
Only then, and stop me if you’ve heard this one before, Nebraska failed to take advantage of its opportunities and failed to execute down the stretch, allowing Indiana to pull away and win. While Nebraska’s resolve was impressive and deserves to be celebrated, Sunday night’s contest was more of a same-song, different-verse performance for a Husker team that cannot find a way to win in the Big Ten.
Here are three takeaways from the defeat:
The good and bad of Derrick Walker was on display
Junior forward Derrick Walker made his much-anticipated Nebraska debut against the Hoosiers off the tail of an 11-game suspension served for an NCAA infraction committed while Walker played at Tennessee.
And for playing his first competitive basketball game in two years, Walker impressed. He finished with 10 points on 5-of-7 shooting, three rebounds and one block. Walker and sophomore guard Dalano Banton connected on a couple of occasions in pick-and-roll scenarios, with the forward displaying his soft touch around the rim.
Walker was thrown into the fire on the defensive end, being tasked with slowing down Hoosier sophomore forward Trayce Jackson-Davis, one of the best big men in the Big Ten. In his defensive role he performed admirably, helping to push Jackson-Davis out of the paint. The forward did have a 15-point, 11-rebound double-double, but nine of those points came from the free throw line.
Despite Walker’s impressive touch around the rim and defensive acumen being on full display, his performance wasn’t all sunshine and roses. As expected, Walker struggled with the pace of play and looked gassed on multiple occasions. He also had three turnovers, which is something he’ll need to improve upon going forward.
However, a lack of conditioning is to be expected after such a lengthy hiatus from competitive play. It’s a problem that will more than likely remedy itself as the season progresses and Walker works his way back into game fitness.
“The thing about Derrick coming back for the first time, I mean he was gassed a couple times up the floor… That’s his first action in two years,” head coach Fred Hoiberg said postgame. “I thought Derrick was phenomenal, I thought he did a really good job around the basket.”
The turnovers and conditioning are issues that will more than likely sort themselves out as Walker gets more and more comfortable with the collegiate game and Hoiberg’s offense. Making a season debut against big men of Indiana’s quality is no easy feat, and he handled it extremely well. Walker’s Sunday-night performance shows just how valuable he can be in slowing down Big Ten big men.
Hot-shooting Hoosiers make way for McGowens-led, second-half Nebraska rally
It looked like another blowout conference loss in the early stages of Sunday’s game, in part because Indiana shot the lights out early on.
The Hoosiers made seven of their first 10 field goal attempts and seven of their first nine 3-point attempts, racing out to a 31-13 lead with 10 minutes remaining in the first half. At one point, Indiana junior guard Rob Phinisee had more points (14) than Nebraska’s entire team (13). Junior guard Teddy Allen and junior forward Lat Mayen combined for 21 first-half points to help keep the Huskers competitive, but Nebraska still faced a 46-34 halftime deficit.
Coming out afterwards, Indiana cooled off significantly on the offensive end in the second half. Miller’s squad shot a fair 38% from the field but just 18% from 3-point range. The Hoosiers managed to shoot just 2-of-11 from deep after knocking down seven triples in the first half, which allowed the Huskers an avenue to come back.
Junior guard Trey McGowens served as Nebraska’s second-half instigator, with 10 points on 3-of-5 shooting, three rebounds and three assists in the game’s final 20 minutes. His ability to get to the rim provided a spark for Nebraska’s offense early on in the second half, and a driving layup sliced Indiana’s advantage to 60-58 with just over 11 minutes remaining in the second half.
Following Indiana and Nebraska exchanging baskets, McGowens found senior guard Kobe Webster in the corner for a go-ahead 3-pointer, which gave the Huskers a 63-62 lead with 9:39 remaining.
“Trey was phenomenal. I think the difference for Trey’s second half is he was so much under control,” Hoiberg said. “I thought he made every right decision in the second half and really got us into it in so many ways defensively.”
Two McGowens free throws tied the game up at 71 with five minutes remaining, the last of his 10 points on the evening. The two teams continued to go back-and-forth, but a second-chance layup by sophomore forward Jerome Hunter with 1:33 remaining provided Indiana with the four-point cushion it so desperately needed. Nebraska was unable to get a bucket down the stretch, sending it to an eight-point loss.
Mayen finds his shooting stroke
Sunday night’s contest was vital for the confidence of Mayen going forward, despite the end result of a loss.
In November, Mayen turned in two solid performances against McNeese State and North Dakota State. Against McNeese, the forward had 13 points on 5-of-11 shooting, including 3-of-7 from 3-point range. Against North Dakota State, Mayen shot 3-of-6 from 3-point range and 4-of-7 from the field, finishing with 12 points.
Not only did the Nov. 28 game against North Dakota State mark the last time Mayen cracked double-figures for Nebraska, it also kickstarted a horrific stretch shooting the ball. He made six combined 3-pointers against those two aforementioned opponents. In Mayen’s next eight games, he made a combined six 3-pointers.
He did make 2-of-3 from deep in the Huskers’ last outing against Michigan State, but a performance like the one he had against Indiana has to inspire confidence going forward — especially with consecutive good showings. Mayen finished with 15 points on five made 3-pointers against Indiana, both of which are career-highs.
If Mayen, who was heralded as a floor-stretching shooter entering Nebraska, can consistently emerge as a tertiary scoring option, Nebraska’s offense should be able to soar in the remainder of the season. Allen’s 21 points, Walker’s debut or McGowens’ second-half effort may steal a majority of the headlines from Sunday’s game, but Mayen’s performance may ultimately be the most important development for the Huskers going forward.