For more than 36 minutes, Nebraska had No. 25 Illinois on the ropes with a chance to knock off its first ranked opponent in nearly three years.
Instead, with the game tied 65-65 with 3:57 remaining, the Huskers watched the Fighting Illini close on a 16-6 run and turn near upset victory into an 81-71 defeat on Tuesday night at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Bryce McGowens had 19 points to help NU go toe-to-toe with an Illinois team that had won nine of its last 10 games coming in. But once again, when it came down to making the critical plays when it mattered the most, Nebraska reverted to the same problems that have plagued it all season.
As a result, the Huskers fell to fell to 6-11 overall and 0-6 in Big Ten Conference play and have yet to defeat a ranked team since the 2019 Big Ten Tournament.
Nebraska couldn’t have started the night much better, as it opened the game by hitting its first four 3-pointers and six of its first eight shots to jump out to a 16-4 lead out of the gate.
But NU’s offense quickly cooled down, and Illinois fired right back with a 24-5 run of its own. The Huskers scored just five points over 10 minutes and didn’t make a field goal for 7:28.
Illinois eventually went up by as much as 31-23 on a three by Trent Frazier with 4:43 left in the half. Nebraska looked like it was about to implode, but it rallied and closed on an 11-0 run for a 34-31 lead at halftime.
That marked the second time in 10 games against high-major competition that NU held a halftime lead. In the first three minutes and final three minutes of the half, the Huskers out-scored Illinois 22-2. In the 14 minutes between those runs, they were out-scored 29-12.
It remained a back-and-forth affair into the second half, with three lead changes and no advantage extending beyond five points through the first 17 minutes.
McGowens tied the game with two free throws to make it 65-65 with 3:57 remaining, but then things got away from Nebraska from there.
Illinois used three straight offensive rebounds for a put-back score, blocked McGowens’ layup, had an ally-oop dunk, forced a Verge turnover, and then buried a 3-pointer to take a 72-65 lead in less than 90 seconds of gameplay.
Another Frazier 3-pointer made it 77-67 and hammered the nail in the coffin with just over a minute to play.
Derrick Walker had 14 points and seven rebounds, while Alonzo Verge Jr. finished with 14 points, nine assists, four rebounds, and five turnovers.
The Huskers return to action on Friday at No. 7 Purdue for a 5:30 p.m. CT tip on FS1.
1. Nebraska still doesn’t know how to win
In dropping its ninth defeat in its last 10 games, Nebraska has consistently found two polar opposite ways to lose this season.
There have been lopsided blowouts where the Huskers look like they don’t even belong on the same court with their opponent. Then there have been games like Tuesday night, where they hang with some of the best competition in the country but fall apart in the most important moments down the stretch.
Despite an ugly stretch of offense in the first half, NU played more well enough to beat Illinois. But when the game was firmly on the line, the Illini’s roster full of seasoned veterans stepped up time and again and took the game over against a Nebraska team that still doesn’t know how to win.
Walker was fantastic once again. McGowens played with as much aggressiveness in taking the ball to the rim as we’ve seen. Even Verge, who had struggled the past three games, made some big plays to keep the Huskers close.
Yet no one had the leadership or the fortitude to put the game on his shoulders in the final minutes. Illinois did, and that was the difference between one team improving to 12-3 and the other falling to 6-11.
At some point, Nebraska’s young players, and even its upperclassmen, need to grow up and figure out how to compete for a full 40 minutes and finish the job. The moral victories are over for this group. It’s time to win.
2. Derrick Walker stepped up again
As he’s been since Nebraska returned from the holiday break, Walker was the Huskers’ best player against Illinois.
Tasked with one of the most difficult assignments in college basketball, the 6-foot-8, 239-pound junior more than held his own against the 7-1, 285 All-American Cockburn.
Walker’s 14 points in the loss gave him his fifth-straight outing in double figures. He also led NU with seven rebounds, including three of the team’s six offensive boards.
But just as impressive as his offense was how Walker defended Cockburn in the paint. The Huskers decided to leave him one-on-one against Cockburn to better account for Illinois’ 3-point shooting.
Despite giving up four inches and nearly 50 pounds, Walker held Cockburn to one of his worst outings of the season. Cockburn still ended up with 18 points and 13 rebounds, but he needed 18 shots to get there.
Tuesday night marked just the second time this year that Cockburn shot under 50-percent from the field. It also snapped his four-game streak of scoring 20 or more points.
3. The offense has to stay on the attack
Nebraska entered tonight’s contest attempting an average of 22.5 3-point shots per game, but it only took 12 threes against Illinois, making six.
That total was eight less than its previous season-low for 3-point tries and 10 fewer than its season average.
Part of that had to do with how good Illinois’ perimeter defense is at chasing shooters off the 3-point line. But it was also a product of the Huskers making a concerted effort to attack the basket and draw fouls at the rim.
That strategy was off and on Tuesday night, as NU didn’t get many calls during its first-half scoring drought, which led to numerous bad shots and wasted possessions.
However, when it worked, Nebraska looked as assertive as it’s been with the basketball all year.
McGowens and Verge combined to draw 16 fouls on their own, while the Huskers scored 36 of their 71 points in the paint on 17 dunks and layups.
Nebraska opened the game making its first four 3-pointers but went 2-for-6 the rest of the way. A big reason why this one was close was that NU didn’t die by the three once the perimeter shots stopped falling.
It attacked the paint, and by no coincidence, its offense suddenly started looking much more functional. That must continue if the Huskers are ever going to get over the hump this season.