This browser does not support the video element.
The Nebraska men’s basketball team will have a big blown lead to chew on for the entire offseason.
One of NU’s best first halves of the season dissipated into a season-ending 72-66 loss to Penn State Thursday night in the Big Ten Tournament. Nebraska coughed up a 14-point halftime lead with a series of turnovers and costly fouls that fueled the Nittany Lions, which outscored NU 23-9 from the free throw line.
“It was too bad, because I thought that first half was about as well as we’ve played on both ends,” coach Fred Hoiberg said.
The Huskers finished 7-20 in a long, strange COVID-interrupted season that included a four-week pause in play, followed by four furious weeks of basketball against the best league in college basketball. Penn State improved to 11-13 overall and advanced to the second round of the Big Ten Tournament, where it will face sixth-seeded Wisconsin.
Nebraska was led by Trey McGowens (13 points, four rebounds, four assists), Derrick Walker (eight points, seven rebounds and six assists), Thor Thorbjarnarson (12 points) and Kobe Webster (12 points). The latter two, both seniors, both have options to return for next year due to NCAA COVID allowances but may also have played their final games as Huskers. Dalano Banton added seven points.
Penn State’s Jamari Wheeler (18 points) led all scorers, while forward John Harrar battered NU on the boards for the third time this season with 14 rebounds. PSU had 14 offensive rebounds and 12 second-chance points off of them.
After a sluggish shooting start for both teams, Nebraska found its long-range touch in a big way, hitting six first-half 3-pointers, including back-to-back trios from Thorbjarnarson that sparked a 12-0 run midway through the first half and gave the Huskers a 20-8 lead. When PSU cut that to 26-18 with 6:27 left, Nebraska went on a 7-0 run with two layups from Walker and a Thorbjarnarson 3-pointer.
One key: Walker, avoiding foul trouble, distributing four first- half assists to go with four points and four rebounds. Walker consistently anchored the post, drew attention to him, and kicked out to open shooters for 3s. Penn State’s offense, meanwhile, largely remained stagnant while committing 10 first-half turnovers. The Nittany Lions shot 28.1% in the opening 20 minutes — 13.3% from 3-point range.
Nebraska’s 14-point halftime lead was its second-largest of the Big Ten season, but Hoiberg talked to NU players at halftime about guarding against a Penn State surge. The Nittany Lions had performed a similar comeback against Maryland on Sunday. They would again.
“They keep fighting and coming at ya,” Hoiberg said. “Unfortunately, they got the loose balls in the second half that we got in the first half.”
Penn State quickly cut into it after scoring eight points on its first three possessions of the second half. PSU’s 10-0 run was stopped by a Kobe Webster jumper, but the damage had been done, especially in the fouls department: The Nittany Lions were in the bonus with 13:18 left in the game — McGowens went to the bench with his fourth foul at that moment - and they made 20 of 24 second half free throws.
“It was those fouls I picked up — they were careless,” McGowens said. “I feel like that was probably the biggest thing that happened tonight.”
Penn State took its first lead of the second half with two Izaiah Brockington free throws at the 9:27 mark. From there, the game remained tight, with both defenses digging in against one another. Dalano Banton scored seven straight points on three layups and a free throw. Walker tied the game at 59 with two free throws. But PSU guard Myles Dread — after struggling all night — hit a crucial 3-points to give his team a 63-59 lead with 2:48 left. Penn State held off Nebraska down the stretch by hitting its free throws and relying on NU’s misses. The Huskers shot just 33.3% from the field and 18.8% from 3 in the second half.
It was Hoiberg’s second straight seven-win season, but his tone about this team differed significantly from his first, in part because of the “adversity,” he said, his team battled through.
“Every day, they came in, ready to work, and I appreciate that,” Hoiberg said. “I talked to them about, obviously, we’re going to have to be a more consistent basketball team next year if we’re going to win these types of games. We’re showing a lot of great flashes. We’re a much better team now than we were last year; we’re a better team than we were at the beginning of the season.”
Hoiberg said Nebraska will build on a “core” of players returning, including McGowens, and a “great recruiting class,” which includes five-star signee Bryce McGowens, Trey’s younger brother.
“I love our future,” Hoiberg said. “It’s very bright.”
Trey McGowens agreed.
“I love our group of guys,” he said. “We’re going to continue to work, continue to get better.”
» Husker coach Fred Hoiberg is now 7-5 in conference tournament games, with a 0-2 record at Nebraska and a 7-3 record at Iowa State.
» Get the full story later tonight on Omaha.com.