Monday evening was a reunion at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
First, Nebraska’s students returned. The section was filled to the brim on the last day prior to the start of the spring semester. More importantly for Nebraska men’s basketball, junior guard Trey McGowens stepped onto the court for the first time since breaking his foot against Creighton on Nov. 16.
Victory did not make its return on Monday.
The Huskers did a lot of the right things. They defended the 3-point line well, holding the Indiana Hoosiers to 30% shooting. In addition, they won the turnover battle and shot 81% at the free-throw line. Ultimately, it wasn’t enough. A big first half from Hoosier junior forward Trayce Jackson-Davis and a team shooting mark of 62% in the first half outweighed the positives for Nebraska.
Indiana defeated Nebraska 78-71 for the sixth consecutive Husker loss and the eighth such loss in conference play. Nebraska fell under .500 at home and allowed 75 or more points for the sixth straight game. The Huskers cut the lead to four multiple times but despite closing the gap, couldn’t quite get over the hump.
“We had a couple possessions where the ball hit every part of the rim,” Nebraska head coach Fred Hoiberg said postgame. “Those are deflating, but our guys kept competing.”
It started in pairs. It was a pair of turnovers for Nebraska on the offensive end, two buckets in the paint for Indiana, and a set of 3-pointers for Husker junior forward Lat Mayen. Down 11-9, with 15:29 on the clock, junior guard Trey McGowens made his return to the PBA floor.
The fans rose to their feet, Mayen gave McGowens a bear hug and Mayen, his face lit by a large smile, waved his arms in the air to pump up the crowd. Moments later, McGowens hit a contested 3-pointer making it 17-14 Hoosiers with 11:57 remaining in the first half.
The last two months have been a crucible for McGowens.
Weeks of rehab. No jump shots for six weeks. Workouts and hours of rehab each day. The nothing-but-net stroke on his first jump shot was an homage to weeks of shooting from a chair. The hardest weeks according to McGowens were the first and the last. The roar of the crowd was music to his ears.
“I definitely miss being out there,” McGowens said postgame. “Basketball is what I’ve done my whole life…once you lose that it just makes you appreciate it even more.”
Hoiberg could see McGowens' immediate impact.
“Having Trey out there was a great lift,” Hoiberg said. “You see how much better we are with his intensity, with his leadership, with his passion on the defensive end of the floor.”
A dunk by freshman forward Eduardo Andre at 9:45 in the first half was the first 2-point field goal for the Huskers. Senior guard Alonzo Verge Jr. found Andre for another slam and cut the Hoosier lead to five. But, Indiana maintained its lead with seven points off turnovers and 14 points in the paint contributing to a 27-20 advantage under eight minutes in the first half.
A technical foul assessed after the contact to Nebraska freshman guard Bryce McGowens underscored the chippy nature of the first half. Combined, there were 24 total fouls whistled and each squad took advantage. The Huskers were 10-of-12 at the line while Indiana shot 12-of-16 and held a 45-39 lead at halftime.
Following a first half in which they shot 60% from the field and scored 22 points in the paint, the Hoosiers maintained the lead. The lead dwindled down to as few as four points, but the Hoosiers continued to find an answer and held a 57-49 lead with 11:13 remaining.
A putback slam by Jackson-Davis grew the lead to double digits but on his way down, he screamed in the face of Andre. That was the second technical foul of the game and another in a series of combative sequences in the contest. After Bryce McGowens converted one of two technical free throws, Indiana led 67-58 with 7:55 on the clock.
“A big difference in the halves defensively was that I thought we did a much better job of sitting on Treyce Jackson-Davis’ right shoulder and forcing him to go to his right hand,” Hoiberg said.
In the next four minutes, the Hoosiers turned it over four times but only one of those resulted in points for Nebraska. Bryce McGowens added yet another highlight dunk to his growing collection making it 71-65 Indiana.
It never got closer than that. Both McGowens brothers had open looks from 3-point range in the final two minutes but neither found the bottom of the cup and the Hoosiers held on. For Trey McGowens, offensive problems determined the Huskers’ inability to get over the hump.
“Just execution down the stretch,” McGowens said. “Whether it’s a stop, or executing and getting a good shot or just pace of play. I feel that’s the biggest thing with execution on the offensive end.”
Jackson-Davis finished with 23 points and 12 rebounds leading all players in both categories. Bryce McGowens scored 20 points for Nebraska and Verge added 19. Junior forward Derrick Walker scored just four points, his lowest since the Michigan game Dec. 7. In large part, that was due to foul trouble.
“It was almost like ‘here we go again’ for Derrick,” Hoiberg said. “He’s been our biggest warrior throughout this stretch and tonight he had a tough game.”
Nebraska will get one of its better runs of practices with three and an off day coming up prior to a rematch with Ohio State on Saturday. Hoiberg's focus for the practices ahead mirrors that of Trey McGowens: late game execution. When asked how much the Huskers will emphasize those late game situations, Hoiberg’s answer was simple.