For the first 39 minutes, Nebraska once again looked like it was going to have a chance to finally snap its long Big Ten losing streak with a road upset at Michigan.
Then, just as it’s unfolded so many times already this season, the Huskers failed to make the most significant plays when it mattered the most and suffered an 85-79 defeat.
Bryce McGowens had a team-high 24 points, and NU had the game tied at 79-79 with 1:20 left to play. But the Wolverines put it away from there, shutting out Nebraska the rest of the way and ending with six unanswered points.
Despite playing just five minutes in the first half due to foul trouble, 7-foot-1 center Hunter Dickinson took the game over after halftime, scoring 20 of his game-high 26 points and hauling in all eight of his rebounds after the break.
The Wolverines ended up with 18 second-chance points off of 12 offensive rebounds on the night, including scoring 14 on 10 offensive boards in the second half alone. They also went a whopping 27-of-33 at the free-throw line for a 15-point edge (on 18 more attempts) at the charity stripe.
The first half couldn’t have gone much better for Nebraska, as it shot 54.8 percent from the field, matched Michigan on the glass at 15-15, and held UM to just 1-of-6 shooting from 3-point range.
After exchanging a series of 7-0 runs, the Huskers led by as many as 10 points before going into halftime up 44-37.
McGowens had 14 of his 24 points in the first half, but a combined seven fouls on front-court players Derrick Walker (2), Eduardo Andre (3), and Lat Mayen (2) forced head coach Fred Hoiberg to manage minutes going forward.
That momentum would quickly be erased at the start of the second half, as Michigan opened with a 20-3 run while Nebraska racked up five more fouls in the first two and a half minutes to fall behind 57-47.
But the Huskers would come storming back with a 19-3 run of their own and eventually took a 66-60 lead on a pair of free throws by McGowens with 8:51 remaining.
However, after 3-pointer by Keisei Tominaga put NU up 73-66 with 6:08 to go, the sophomore guard was called for a technical foul after arguing a questionable call on a blocked shot. That led to a four-point swing for Michigan at the line, and two more free throws by Dickinson got UM back within 73-72.
C.J. Wilcher knocked down two at the stripe to tie the game at 79-79 with 1:20 to go, but Devante’ Jones scored 10 seconds later, followed by a Husker turnover, a UM offensive rebound, and a foul on McGowens with just 15 seconds left.
Four more Michigan free throws from there would seal the deal for good.
Walker had 10 points on 5-of-6 shooting before fouling out in the final seconds, while Alonzo Verge Jr. returned to the starting lineup and added eight points and three assists for Nebraska.
The Huskers shot 50.6% from the field, their highest clip yet in Big Ten play this season.
Eli Brooks finished with 20 points while Jones posted 18 for Michigan, which went 15-of-16 on free throws in the second half.
1. Nebraska’s late-game lineup was worth questioning
In playing so well through the first half, Nebraska relied heavily on its starting backcourt of Bryce McGowens, Trey McGowens, and Verge Jr.
All three played at least 17 of the first 20 minutes and combined for 26 of NU’s 44 points, six of its 15 rebounds, and all five of its assists at halftime.
But after a disastrous start to the second half, Hoiberg settled on a lineup of Kobe Webster, Bryce, Wilcher, Tominaga, and Walker for the final 12:33.
That group provided a desperately-needed spark, out-scoring Michigan 21-8 over the next six minutes to put the Huskers up by seven.
But as the game went on into crunch time, that lineup clearly started to wear down. Yet Hoiberg opted to stick with it and did not make a substitution until Walker fouled out with just three seconds left to play.
With a golden opportunity reach to finally pull off a Big Ten victory, Hoiberg left some of his most experienced and best players – Trey and Verge – on the bench for the final 12:33.
“The guys that I rolled with down the stretch, they got a little tired digging ourselves out of that hole, but it’s who I rolled with,” Hoiberg said on his postgame radio show. “It was who I thought was going to give us the best chance to win.”
2. Tominaga’s technical changed the game
Nebraska was on the cusp of taking control of the game down the stretch after Tominaga buried a 3-pointer to make it 73-66 with just over six minutes remaining.
Then, on the ensuing defensive possession, the 6-foot-2 Tominaga appeared to make a clean block on a Dickinson layup. Instead, the officials whistled him for a foul to send Dickinson to the line.
While Tominaga is known for his animated playing style, he lost his cool while arguing the call and was hit with a technical foul.
Brooks made both of the technical free throws, and then Dickinson cashed in on his shots at the line to trim a seven-point NU lead down to 73-70.
That four-point swing ended up sparking a 19-6 run by the Wolverines to close out the game.
3. NU had no answer for Dickinson
It shouldn’t be any surprise that Dickinson, one of the best young big men in college basketball, was a matchup nightmare for Nebraska’s undersized frontcourt.
But how drastically the game shifted between when he was in and out of the game was fascinating nonetheless.
After picking up his second foul just five minutes into the game, Dickinson was benched for the remainder of the first half. By no coincidence, the Huskers quickly turned a two-point deficit into a 10-point lead over the next 10 minutes that he was out.
Without Dickinson’s 7-1, 260-pound frame in the paint, Nebraska shot 54.1% inside the arc and averaged 1.22 points per possession in the first half.
When Dickinson returned to the court to start the second half, the game immediately changed. He scored 12 of Michigan’s first 20 points during its 20-3 spurt out of the break.
When he checked out at the 12:33 mark, Nebraska immediately capitalized with a 10-2 rally and tied the game at 60-60 before he returned to the game for good two minutes later.