Nebraska men’s basketball realized a sobering truth on Saturday evening.
No matter how macabre, devastating or outright depressing things are currently going, they can always get worse. Losing nine consecutive Big Ten games and 12 of 13 overall was the current state of affairs for head coach Fred Hoiberg’s team entering Saturday’s home contest with Rutgers.
But lo and behold, opportunity. Following a gauntlet to open Big Ten play, the Huskers’ schedule lightened significantly over the final month-and-a-half of the season — starting with the Scarlet Knights’ visit to Pinnacle Bank Arena. Nebraska has just one remaining opponent currently ranked in the AP Top 25.
For most of the game, at least according to the scoreboard, Nebraska played like a team that knew exactly what was in front of it. The Huskers played with urgency and tenacity. Even when shots didn’t fall for stretches in both halves, Nebraska made critical defensive stops to fend off Rutgers advances.
And then it all fell apart. The Huskers’ slow, painful march towards defeat occurred in typical heart-wrenching fashion, complete with a healthy serving of late-game follies. Here are three takeaways from Nebraska’s horrifying loss to Rutgers:
An inexcusable collapse
The Huskers led from the jump on Saturday, and led comfortably for lengthy periods of play.
It came, in large part, to an incredible defensive effort, an effort Hoiberg called “the best of the season.” Nebraska limited Rutgers to 38.3% from the field and 15.8% from 3-point range. The Scarlet Knights’ two most dynamic weapons in senior guards Ron Harper Jr. and Geo Baker were rendered ineffective for a majority of the contest.
Even after Nebraska held a slim three-point halftime lead, the Huskers were able to open things. Each time the Scarlet Knights whittled the Nebraska lead to one or two possessions down the stretch, freshman guard Bryce McGowens usually had a response.
Then came what could’ve been the deathblow.
Down 51-45 with 6:18 remaining, Rutgers freshman guard Jalen Miller was called for a technical foul following an animated reaction to a call on the floor. McGowens sank two of four free throws in the aftermath, but Nebraska held an eight point lead and a spirited home crowd at its back.
Only it was Rutgers that responded, not Nebraska. Baker and Harper Jr. finally punished the Huskers’ inability to fully put away the visitors, leading a late-game charge while Nebraska’s offense sputtered. Nebraska made just one field goal in the final eight minutes of action.
This of course insinuates that Nebraska once again failed to execute down the stretch, which would be a correct assumption. The Scarlet Knights cut Nebraska’s lead to one on consecutive possessions before the three-minute mark with 3-pointers from Harper Jr. and sophomore forward Mawot Mag, then junior guard Paul Mulcahy pulled down an improbable offensive rebound and finished inside to give Rutgers a 61-60 lead with 1:32 remaining.
In the final 90 seconds, Nebraska failed to generate any quality game-winning looks, which is particularly damning considering that Hoiberg had the opportunity to draw up an offensive set with 46 seconds remaining.
Still, after all of that, the Huskers had one final opportunity to tie the contest. Harper Jr. connected on two free throws to give the Scarlet Knights a 63-60 lead with 10 seconds remaining. Nebraska dialed up a look for senior guard Kobe Webster, who was 0-of-10 from the field, and Baker fouled the guard as he hoisted the game-tying attempt.
Webster missed the first of three free throws, effectively ending the contest.
“We didn’t rebound down the stretch, and we didn’t get stops when we needed to. I would say that kinda changed the game,” McGowens said postgame. “We just didn’t make the big plays in big moments.”
That’s what ultimately stings the most. It wasn’t the most effective offensive effort, but Nebraska did more-than-enough defensively to win. The Huskers even held a rebounding advantage over a squad that, according to Hoiberg, “manhandled” Nebraska on the glass when both teams met just three weeks ago.
The Huskers, once again, didn’t do those things when it mattered most. That’s the only thing that matters.
McGowens brothers power offense in Verge’s absence
Before Nebraska completely collapsed, one of the more surreal moments of the 2021-22 season took place, a moment that completely ignited the Pinnacle Bank Arena crowd.
With Rutgers on the fastbreak, sophomore forward Aundre Hyatt went up for a dunk, but was met at the rim in emphatic fashion by junior guard Trey McGowens. He then led the fastbreak which culminated in an and-one layup by his younger brother, Bryce McGowens.
Aside from the special moment both brothers shared, it further indicated the impact that the McGowens brothers had on the contest. Bryce McGowens was once again extremely impressive, posting 29 points on 6-of-17 shooting. He did most of his work from the free throw line, where he went 14-of-18. Trey McGowens was the only other Husker in double-figures, finishing with 11 points on 4-of-10 shooting, seven rebounds and two blocks.
Their efforts were sorely needed given Nebraska’s personnel on Saturday night.
Senior guard Alonzo Verge Jr., Nebraska’s second-leading scorer, didn’t play against the Scarlet Knights due to what Hoiberg dubbed a “personal matter.” He was seated on the bench in street clothes for the contest, though. Hoiberg offered no updates postgame as to whether or not the Arizona State transfer would see action against Michigan on Tuesday.
That shouldn’t detract from Bryce McGowens’ performance, though. After all, he posted 23 points on Thursday against Wisconsin with Verge in action. With three consecutive 20-point games to his name, the Huskers’ five-star recruit appears to be settling into a nice offensive groove in the ever-tricky Big Ten.
“It’s unbelievable where [Bryce] is considering where he was a couple months ago… he’s maturing right before our eyes,” Hoiberg said postgame. “Asking him to do so much out there, I thought defensively he was rock-solid out there as well, he’s just doing so many things for our team.”
It can’t get worse, right?
Nebraska has a quick turnaround following the brutal defeat, the last bit of impact from the team’s COVID-19-impacted schedule. Hoiberg’s crew visits Michigan on Tuesday, a team that beat Nebraska 102-67 in December.
The Huskers will enter the contest in desperate need for something to break their way. Things could unravel extremely quickly if they don’t. Nebraska does have home opportunities with Northwestern, Minnesota and Maryland — all teams ranked No. 67 or lower nationally according to kenpom.com — but it may not ultimately matter unless the team can figure out a way to close out a game.
It’s fair to wonder whether or not Nebraska will be able to respond. Nebraska has lost some tight, tight contests in its recent 10-game losing skid, a number further expanded when examining the Huskers’ run of 13 losses in 14 games.
10 consecutive Big Ten losses is the longest to open conference play in Hoiberg’s tenure. Those are the inarguable facts. It makes enjoying things like Bryce McGowens’ scoring explosion or the team’s defensive effort essentially meaningless. The final result was the same as all the ones before.
Nebraska needs three wins in its final nine to match last season’s Big Ten win total, and two to avoid posting a miserable low point. After Saturday’s contest, matching those single-digit-win teams of years past might be Nebraska’s lone reprieve.