Nebraska basketball’s first win over Illini started surge
LINCOLN — Let’s call it what it was: a season-saving victory.
On Jan. 15, three days after Nebraska lost in overtime at Penn State, last-place and winless-in-the-Big Ten Illinois came to Pinnacle Bank Arena and nearly robbed the place.
The Illini, on a rare four-point play with 8.1 seconds left, took the lead. But NU guard James Palmer, with 0.3 seconds left, hit a leaning 3-pointer for a 64-63 win.
Counting that victory, the Huskers (20-8, 11-4) have won eight of nine to surge into the NCAA tournament conversation ahead of Sunday’s game at still-in-last Illinois (12-15, 2-12).
Who would have thought both games against the Illini would turn into critical moments of a postseason run?
“We were lucky,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said of the first game. “James hit a runner at the buzzer. But those are the plays and those are the types of things that happen during the season that make it special.’’
Did Miles sense that at the time?
“No,” he said. “I just thought we were luckier than heck.’’
Don’t forget the Husker who did the legwork to get Palmer his winning shot. Illinois native Glynn Watson, whose half-brother Demetri McCamey was an All-Big Ten player for the Illini 10 years ago, dribbled two-thirds of the way up court against pressure and fired the pass that led to the win.
Watson continues to struggle on offense. The last time he shot 50 percent from the field was against Kansas on Dec. 16. Since then, he is 44 of 150 (29.3 percent), including 2 of 12 on Tuesday against Maryland.
But the 6-foot junior repeatedly has made winning plays in other ways, such as blocking a potential go-ahead shot from the Terrapins with 53 seconds left.
“Blocking that shot was such a huge play,” Miles said. “Glynn wasn’t having a great night offensively. He wanted to play better. He wasn’t happy about it. At the same time, he went out and did his job.
“That says a lot about his development and maturity as he becomes a better and better all-around player. He really cares about the team.”
The whole team cares about each other, forward Isaac Copeland said, and that camaraderie has helped build confidence.
“It’s been the same all year,” said the junior transfer from Georgetown. “We’re a very confident team.
“We know we’re very talented. It’s starting to show, but we’re not where we want to be yet. We still have a lot of hunger and a lot of things we want to complete.”
Nebraska needs enough hunger Sunday to play better against Illinois than the first time. The Huskers were outrebounded 46-29, made only 5 of 23 3-pointers (21.7 percent) and had just two players score in double figures.
Illinois forces turnovers on 23 percent of opponent’s possessions, the highest rate in Big Ten play in nine years. The Illini also have led in the second half of 11 of their 15 losses.
“They play really hard on both ends,” Copeland said. “On offense, they move with a lot of pace. On defense, they harass you the whole time. They win the hustle game a lot so you’ve got to play hard.’’
» A Nebraska victory would tie the school record for most conference wins in a season with 12. The only other teams to do that were in 1965-66 (Big Eight) and 1915-16 (Missouri Valley).
» A fifth conference road win Sunday would match the best mark at NU since 1975-76.
» Sunday is Senior Day at Illinois, but there are only two: graduate transfer Mark Alstork and junior college walk-on Clayton Thomas, who has been out all season with a knee injury.