Nebraska men’s basketball has been good at battling adversity all year. Less than a week ago, the Huskers played a four overtime game against North Carolina State. Then, they battled tough on the road against Indiana two days later.
Something was different on Tuesday.
Junior forward Derrick Walker said he could sense it in shoot around. Head coach Fred Hoiberg could sense the difference too. Even the fans were somewhat subdued at tip-off.
Then, Nebraska laid an egg.
The Huskers suffered the worst home loss of the Hoiberg era on Tuesday night. Nebraska never led, and the Michigan Wolverines dominated in a wire-to-wire 102-67 victory.
“I’ve never been a part of one like this where we just quit competing,” Hoiberg said postgame. “Missed shots early. It affected our energy all over the floor.”
Michigan seized the early moments. The Wolverines got out to a quick 5-0 lead after forcing two Nebraska turnovers. But sophomore guard Keisei Tominaga pulled the Huskers back into it with a duo of difficult 3-pointers as Michigan led 11-8 with 15:33 to go in the first half.
Nebraska tied it at 13, but consecutive 3-pointers, one from Michigan sophomore center Hunter Dickinson and another from freshman guard Caleb Houstan, jump started a 13-2 Wolverine run. Michigan made 6-of-7 shots in that frame including seven points from Dickinson.
At the 7:56 mark of the first half, the Wolverines held a 29-18 lead and were shooting 55% from the field and 50% from 3-point territory. During that same period, Nebraska made a single shot.
The 3-point blitz continued. With 3:50 to play in the half, the Wolverines had claimed two Husker timeouts in the span of 30 game seconds. The lead for Michigan had ballooned to 19 at 45-26. Six Wolverines had made 3-pointers and three of those six had multiple makes.
The lack of focus was key to Nebraska’s struggles defending the 3-point line according to Walker.
“Just mental mistakes,” Walker said postgame. “We’ve been having the same defense since we’ve been here so it’s just a lot of locking in on the defensive end.”
Walker also mentioned that Nebraska took a lot of shots that later led to transition 3-pointers and buckets. In fact, Nebraska struggled in transition in general.
Freshman guard Bryce McGowens had a put-back layup with 2:51 to play in the half but, for Nebraska, that was the only highlight. The first half was about as bleak as Nebraska had faced all year. It certainly was the largest deficit the Huskers had incurred.
Nebraska’s offense only managed 32 points in the first half. Senior guard Alonzo Verge Jr. was the only Husker in double figures with 14 points and added four rebounds and three assists. The next closest scorer was Tominaga with six points who, after making two of his first three 3-pointers, missed his next three shots from beyond the arc.
Michigan put together an outstanding half on the offensive end with 51 points. The Wolverines were led by senior forward Brandon Johns Jr who had 16 points. Sophomore forward Terrance Willliams II was also in double figures with 10 points.
To begin the second half, Verge continued to dominate possessions for Nebraska.
Inside the first four minutes, the Huskers had three straight offensive trips down the floor where Verge was the only one to touch the basketball. But, on all three of those possessions, Verge scored. With 15:47 to go in the 2nd half, Nebraska was down 59-39.
Verge tried to rally the Huskers back. Contested layups, reverses and even a 3-pointer was all on the table for the Husker point guard. Verge had 27 points for the Huskers with 11:22 remaining in the game. But, Nebraska couldn’t get a stop on the defensive side of the ball. Wide open transition layups, post entries and 3-pointers were all on the table for the Wolverines as they built a 73-51 lead.
With 7:57 to play in the game, the exodus of fans began. As Nebraska began the final minutes of play, only the brave and the bold remained. The Wolverines had 14 made 3-pointers to Nebraska’s four. The Michigan lead was an even 30 points at 84-54.
“As competitors, as basketball players as humans we look at these games and we should be licking our chops,” Walker said postgame. “We should be happy. We should be ready to play and that wasn’t the case tonight.”
As the clock wound down, Tominaga sank a deep 3-pointer, and the Husker fans that remained let out a tepid cheer. Much like every other phase of the game Tuesday, Nebraska immediately shot itself in the foot by giving up two transition layups. With 1:41 to play, Michigan broke 100.
The Wolverines dominated in every area of the game. Michigan out-shot Nebraska by 10 from 3-point range, out-rebounded the Huskers by 16, had 21 more assists and three fewer turnovers. The only area where Nebraska bested the Wolverines was the free-throw line, where the Huskers made 1% more of their shots.
Williams II and Johns Jr. had 22 and 20 points respectively and Dickinson had 15. Verge shot 57% from the floor and led the Huskers in scoring. Tominaga was next closest with 11, the only other Husker to reach double digits. McGowens finished with eight points and only took two shots in the second half.
Verge had 31 points. Nebraska lost by 35.
The Huskers finished with just four assists.
Michigan head coach Juwan Howard saw a very different Nebraska team on film.
“What I saw from Nebraska was a well coached team that does a really good job of sharing the basketball,” Howard said postgame.
Hoiberg was less confident in the Nebraska offense. According to Hoiberg, he is “going to consider everything” in the next few days. That may include the pace of the offense.
Howard was very complimentary of individual Husker players. He referred to Verge, McGowens and Tominaga specifically. Howard said Tominaga was perhaps one of the best shooters in the country. But in the end, the Wolverine game plan prevailed.
“Today we tried to do whatever we could to make it tough on both ends of the floor,” Howard said.
That the Wolverines certainly did.
“We had no fight. Just no fight tonight,” Hoiberg said postgame. “That’s the thing that’s just very disheartening.”
For Walker, the importance of this Big Ten defeat is not lost on him. The path ahead doesn’t get any easier for Nebraska. Now the Huskers will head on the road to face off against SEC foe No. 18 Auburn Saturday.
“It’s Big Ten and we got to be ready to come out and play every game,” Walker said. “So yeah, this one hurts a lot.”
Nebraska is only ten games into its season. But, its record is 5-5 and Hoiberg sees the edge of the cliff. Of course, Auburn stands as the next Husker hurdle. Kansas State is on the docket too. One overtime loss has quickly become three in a row. With the stretch ahead, that could become four or five. The Huskers need to do everything they can to avoid toppling off that edge.
“If you sit here and hang your heads and feel sorry for yourself, it's gonna get a lot worse,” Hoiberg said. “Nobody’s gonna feel sorry for us, we gotta bounce back.”