Once again, with a chance to break the spell and finally earn a win over a power-conference opponent, Nebraska could not close the deal, collapsing in the final minutes of an 81-71 loss Tuesday night to No. 25 Illinois at Pinnacle Bank Arena .
Star freshman Bryce McGowens scored 19 points to lead Nebraska (6-11 overall, 0-6 Big Ten), including a pair of free throws to tie the game at 65 with just 3:57 remaining. In a back-and-forth second half that featured three lead changes, two ties and no lead larger than five up to that point, it was anyone’s game to win.
Illinois (12-3, 5-0) proceeded to score after Coleman Hawkins grabbed three uncontested offensive rebounds and scored the tiebreaking putback, block a McGowens drive, score on an alley-oop, force an Alonzo Verge turnover, then bury NU’s hopes with a Da’Monte Williams 3-pointer.
The 7-0 Illini run came at the most critical juncture of the game and left the Huskers still searching for their first Big Ten win of the season.
“It’s obviously a horrible time, in crunch time, to not go down and execute,” head coach Fred Hoiberg said. “(Illinois) hit the big ones there at the end of the game when it mattered most. Our effort was phenomenal. I thought we fought them all the way to the end. We just have to execute better down the stretch.”
While it was yet another nightmare finish, the Huskers couldn’t have scripted a better start. Inside the game’s first four minutes, they made six straight shots, including four 3-pointers, and led 16-4.
Junior Lat Mayen, freshman Keisei Tominaga and McGowens knocked down the threes. Junior forward Derrick Walker made a couple shots down low. The surprising start energized the sparse crowd.
It didn’t last, though, as Nebraska would convert just two of their next 16 field goals.
The Illini took advantage of the cold spell, flipped the 12-point deficit around, and took a 31-23 lead on a Trent Frazier 3-pointer with 4:43 left in the half.
Nebraska then came alive on both ends of the court by forcing five turnovers, two offensive fouls, and scoring the last 11 points of the half to take a 34-31 lead into the locker room.
It was only the second time this season NU led a power-conference team at the break. They also led at North Carolina State after 20 minutes in a road game the Huskers lost in four overtimes.
Illinois center and National Player of the Year candidate Kofi Cockburn, who averaged 22.5 points and 12.5 rebounds entering the game, struggled to 16 and 13 while battling second-half foul trouble. He also had the Illini’s worst plus/minus at -7.
Walker defended Cockburn one-on-one most of the night, and he rightly earned praise from his teammates. “Derrick brought it, that’s just what Derrick does,” McGowens said. “He’s a high-energy guy, he’s one of the leaders of our team, and every night he’s going to bring it.”
Finishing with 14 points on 7-for-11 shooting and a team-best seven rebounds, Walker did his part. Senior point guard Alonzo Verge also scored 14 points and dropped a game-high nine assists.
Tominaga scored eight and Mayen six in the scoring blitzes that began and ended the first half. Both were held scoreless after halftime.
Nebraska’s bench did not contribute to the scoring until the 14:10 mark of the second half when senior Kobe Webster got his only two points of the game. The jumper gave NU a 44-43 lead. Freshman CJ Wilcher added six, and freshman Eduardo Andre got two. The 10 total bench points were the Huskers’ third-lowest output of the season.
Despite entering the night leading the Big Ten in steals, the Huskers managed a season-low four. They also shot their fewest threes of the season, hitting 6-of-12 from downtown.
The next opponent for the Big Red will be No. 7 Purdue in West Lafayette at 5:30 p.m. Friday.