LINCOLN — Kobe Webster splashed a corner shot. The Nebraska men’s basketball bench erupted. The small group of family and friends — a relatively languid group for most of these games — were as loud as they’ve been all season. Indiana, on the ropes, called timeout.
The Huskers climbed a mountain midway through the second half of their 84-76 loss to Indiana, erasing an ugly start — and an 18-point deficit — with a stretch of basketball “that was as good as we’ve been all year,” coach Fred Hoiberg said. To forward Derrick Walker, playing his first game as a Husker after serving a long suspension, it proved that “we belong in this league.”
But a 19-4 run, which culminated in Webster’s 3-pointer to give NU a 63-62 lead, does not equal a win. Climbing an in-game mountain does not equal what’s now become a 22-game hump in the Big Ten.
Nebraska hasn’t won in this ferocious league since Jan. 7, 2020. Sunday evening was one of its best chances once the Huskers took a lead with just over nine minutes left in the game.
In falling to 4-8 overall and 0-5 in the Big Ten, NU just didn’t quite finish. It went into the final 3:52 tied and left that stretch with an eight-point loss.
“We missed two layups right at the rim,” Hoiberg said. “We missed four free throws.”
Lat Mayen hit five 3-pointers to shoot out of a slump but nevertheless missed late on a play NU installed on Saturday. Meanwhile, Indiana’s best player, Trayce Jackson-Davis, finally went to work, scoring six straight points in a one-minute span as Nebraska sputtered on offense.
“We’re better than we had been; we’ve just got to convert,” Hoiberg said. “That will come as we hopefully gain confidence and know we can win.”
Hoiberg noted, too, that Nebraska expended a lot of energy dragging itself out of a hole against the Hoosiers (8-5 and 3-3), who hit the floor shooting hot and zipping around a Husker defense without sophomore center Yvan Ouedraogo — who’s out for roughly 17 days, since last Monday, with a positive COVID-19 test — and focused on slowing down Jackson-Davis, one of the nation’s top post players.
NU’s defense did that for a half, holding him to two points and just one shot. Nebraska tries to pack the paint and deny post touches. IU, not a great 3-point shooting team, should have been the perfect dance partner for the strategy.
Instead, Indiana hit seven 3-pointers in one half. Rob Phinisee, who finished with 18 points, splashed three of them. His 3-pointer with 10:03 left gave IU its biggest lead, 31-13.
“A couple of their guys who were shooting 20% looked like they raising up and thought they were Ray Allen or something,” Hoiberg quipped.
Nebraska answered, quickly, with an 8-0 run that was capped off by one of Lat Mayen’s five 3-pointers. While the Hoosiers still led 46-34 at halftime — thanks to a buzzer-beating tip dunk from Trey Galloway — the Huskers didn’t go into retreat like they did at Ohio State.
After playing IU to a virtual draw for the first five minutes of the second half, Nebraska went on the attack. It started with a dunk from Walker, who scored a career-high 10 points. Walker, who played 26 minutes, was clearly winded during and just after the game but played “phenomenal,” Hoiberg said.
That started a 19-4 Nebraska run over six minutes that constituted NU’s best play of the Big Ten stretch. Six different Huskers scored. NU’s pack-the-paint defense started to pay off, as Indiana cooled down from 3-point range. NU guard Trey McGowens, driving intensely into an Indiana team that was playing its third game in six days, was the tip of Nebraska’s spear, finishing with 10 points, six rebounds and six assists, and when he kicked out a pass to Kobe Webster, who made the corner 3-pointer, NU completed the run and had a 63-62 lead.
“He made every right decision in the second half,” Hoiberg said of McGowens, who’s become known for his second-half spurts. “He really got us into it in so many different ways. Defensively, his energy, making the play, whether it was at the basket, getting to the free-throw line or the kickout.”
Nebraska’s lead grew as big as 69-66. Indiana freshman Anthony Leal hit a 3 to tie the game. Jackson-Davis took over. His pretty layup at the 3:52 mark gave IU a 73-71 lead. He drew a foul on Indiana’s next possession and hit two free throws. He did it again on the next trip up the court.
Nebraska’s possessions, meanwhile, came up empty far more often. Dalano Banton missed three free throws. On consecutive trips, Allen missed a fall-away 3 and had a swooping, nearly impossible reverse layup blocked. After both misses, he was whistled for a foul, although on one, it appeared that an IU defender hit Allen’s arm before Allen dramatically fell to the floor and swept the Hoosier’s leg.
It was enough to let Indiana escape with the win — even as Walker saw his team grow.
“Yeah, we lost, but I’m happy with how we came out, how we fight, how we fought together,” he said. “We’re making strides. We’re going to figure it out.”
Hoiberg is still searching for a 40-minute game. Not 20 minutes, like NU played at Ohio State in a blowout loss. Not 36 minutes, like it played against Michigan. Not 34 minutes, which is about what happened against Indiana after IU’s early torrid stretch. The full thing. It has been elusive in 22 straight league losses.
“We’ve been competitive for big stretches of these games,” Hoiberg said. “We need to win to know we can win these games, to get confidence, to hopefully get on a little of a run. But if we play with this energy we played with, to get back in that game … if we can play like that, the wins will take care of themselves.”
Mayen hit a career-high five 3-pointers and scored a career-high 15 points. All five Husker starters scored in double figures for the second time this season.
Allen reached 20 points for the sixth time this season.