MADISON, Wisc. — Nebraska opened Big Ten play Tuesday night by reaching right into the gills of one of college basketball’s top ten offenses.
No. 9 Wisconsin could barely wiggle. The Badgers coughed up the ball. They missed wildly. The Huskers’ defense gave them a shot at a major upset. And another shot. And another shot. And another.
“We were flying around,” coach Fred Hoiberg said.
But in a 67-53 loss, NU just couldn’t make those shots. A 10-point first half lead turned into a one-point halftime deficit, which turned into an insurmountable hill after a 16-0 Wisconsin run midway through the second half. The Huskers held the Badgers 12 points under their season average. But Nebraska scored 28 under its season average, shooting 33.3% from the floor, 29.6% from 3 point range and 52.9% from the free throw line.
“We did not shoot the ball well,” said Hoiberg, who highlighted the 9 of 17 performance at the free throw line compared to Wisconsin’s 15-for-15 performance. “We missed some free throws, missed some easy ones at the rim.”
And NU (4-4 overall and 0-1 in the Big Ten) went unusually dry during the game-deciding run, which occurred after it took a brief, 33-32 second half lead after a Trey McGowens 3. Nebraska missed seven straight shots as Wisconsin (7-1, 1-0) methodically ran its offense through center Micah Potter, who shrugged off a sluggish start to finish with ten points and 11 rebounds.
When Potter drew defenders, he slipped the ball out to Badger shooters, including Brad Davison, a frequent, multi-year thorn in NU’s side, who scored 15 points. His 3-pointer, with 9:24 left, gave the Badgers a 48-33 lead and prompted coach Fred Hoiberg to call timeout. Nebraska never got closer than 12 after that.
Asked whether the team’s offensive struggles eventually led the brief, costly defensive lapse, Hoiberg said it was “human nature” for it happen. Guard Dalano Banton, who led Nebraska with 15 points and eight rebounds, agreed.
“We let our offense dictate our defense,” said Banton, who played a game-high 34 minutes.
That wasn’t true early, as Nebraska’s defense got a boost in part by starting two post players — Lat Mayen and Yvan Ouedraogo — who could successfully match up with Wisconsin’s senior twin towers in Nate Reuvers and Potter. Potter, who came into the game shooting 54.3%, particularly struggled with NU’s habit of dropping a guard into the lane for a double-team and a potential strip of the ball. Mayen and Ouedraogo each had two blocks and a steal in the first half.
The Badger guards, too, couldn’t zip past the Husker defenders to the rim. That left Wisconsin passing the ball around the key and either taking long, off-rhythm 3-pointers or taking its chances by entering the ball into Potter or Reuvers, who combined for seven points, eight missed shots and three turnovers in the first half.
The result? Wisconsin didn’t score for nearly five minutes to start the game. It had three points in the opening ten minutes, and went more than seven between made baskets. At the 5:48 mark, after a McGowens 3-point play, the Huskers led 19-9.
“We knew they were going to play through the paint, knowing we give up size, so we wanted to double-team them every time they caught it on the dribble,” Banton said. “We wanted to harass them, make them fire it out on rotations. That was working for us early.”
But Wisconsin made its surge, finishing the half on a 16-5 run to lead 25-24 at half. True freshman guard Johnny Davis had seven and forward Aleem Ford, benefiting from NU’s attention to Potter and Reuvers, scored seven as well.
When the Badgers jumped out to a 32-26 lead early in the second half, Nebraska answered with the 7-0 run. At the 14:03 mark, Wisconsin retook the lead. It had control of the game within five minutes of game clock. Nebraska suffered a similar fate in losses to Georgia Tech and Creighton. Strong starts. What Hoiberg calls “phenomenal” effort. And then the quick collapse from which NU never recovers.
It’s a trend Hoiberg believes Nebraska will break.
“I told the guys: I think we’re close,” Hoiberg said. “We’re going to start making shots. We’ve got too good of shooters on our team to continue to shoot the percentage we are.”
The opponents ahead — three ranked ones in a row, starting with undefeated Michigan on Christmas — are likely too good to beat without good shooting.
“We have a big opportunity on Christmas,” Banton said. “We’re going to come out, go back to practice and figure out what we have to do. Put a lot of shots, man. Put up a lot of shots when we get back into that gym.”