CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The Nebraska men's basketball team returned to Earth for the first time in three weeks Wednesday night, and it was a crash landing. Against cellar-dwelling Illinois, the Huskers led only twice and stumbled to a season-low in points during a 60-49 loss that snapped their five-game winning streak.
NU (16-11, 8-7) is still in sixth place in the Big Ten after just the third setback in 45 days. What must happen now, guard Terran Petteway said, is to blank out a messy showing in front of 13,206 fans at State Farm Center.
“A loss like this can kind of ruin your season,” said Petteway, the only Husker in double figures with 13 points but on 5-of-18 shooting.
“We can't take three steps back now. We've got to let it go and move forward.”
Instead of rehashing the game film and statistics, Nebraska should consider burning them. Among the ugliness:
Ľ The Huskers missed their first eight 3-pointers and finished 3 of 13. Illinois hit 9 of 24 3-pointers.
Ľ At halftime, NU's three leading scorers — Petteway (18.4), Shavon Shields (12.0) and Walter Pitchford (9.1) — were a combined 2 of 18. They finished with 13, 8 and 2 points.
Ľ Nebraska committed 15 turnovers overall, with eight coming in the final seven minutes. After closing to 57-49 with 2:24 left, the Huskers coughed up the ball on their final four possessions.
As much as those statistics bothered Nebraska coach Tim Miles, one stood out among the rest.
“Illinois won this game with hustle plays,” Miles said. “Two-thirds of all their points — 40 out of 60 — were off turnovers and on second chances.”
Miles had a hunch Wednesday night might not go well. He said Tuesday's practice was substandard. Petteway suggested that the game-day shootaround turn into a full-speed workout, so the Huskers did it.
“I thought that was a good sign, and we actually had a very good shootaround,” Miles said. “But usually you play the way you practice.”
Forward Leslee Smith, who sparkled off the bench with nine points and four rebounds, said Tuesday's practice was a head-scratcher.
“We didn't come out with good energy and we didn't execute well,” he said. “Guys were getting tired fast. And today's walk-through didn't start that good, either. We just had a bad energy going around, and it was hard to break out of it.”
Petteway and Shields fought the doldrums the most.
Shields, who had 33 points in a win over Illinois two weeks ago, finished 2 of 7 from the field and had eight points, nine rebounds and four turnovers. Petteway missed 13 of his first 14 shots.
Miles said Illinois' defense was very similar to the first meeting.
“We got a little impatient,” he said. “You could just see it on our guys. I don't know what you'd call it. I'd call it freaking out.”
The “freak out” included four first-half airballs and three other jumpers that banged into the backboard but not the rim. Yet Nebraska was down only 27-24 after 20 minutes.
“I was surprised it was that close at halftime,” Miles said. “I really felt like we were fortunate to be there.”
Nebraska took only its second lead, at 28-27, by scoring the first four points of the second half. But Illinois (16-12, 5-10) used a 12-0 run to build a 50-37 lead. NU never got closer than eight points after that.
“We could never self-correct,” Miles said. “You have to adjust during the game. We just could never get going regardless of what we ran.”
A victory would have pushed Nebraska into a tie for fourth place in the Big Ten with Ohio State. That led to the question about whether the Huskers felt the pressure of trying to get into the NCAA picture.
Miles shrugged it off, saying: “You're at a time of year where you either have to win or can't afford to lose. That's the joy of the chase of the NCAA tournament.”