Nebraska builds big first-half lead, bounces back with win
LINCOLN — Nine months ago, Isaac Copeland underwent major back surgery.
Eleven months ago, Anton Gill went under the knife for a serious knee injury.
On Sunday, Nebraska’s touted transfers from Georgetown and Louisville offered proof of why the staff was so eager to get them into red and white uniforms.
Copeland scored an NU career-high 30 points and snared eight rebounds, while Gill scored an overall career-high 16 points with three rebounds and three assists as the Huskers romped past North Dakota 92-70 in front of 10,249 at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
The Raleigh, North Carolina, roommates’ 46 points was more than triple their combined scoring average coming in.
“I am just so happy for them,” coach Tim Miles said. “I know what a relief it is and how exciting it is for them. And they deserve it.
“They have worked every day. They’ve struggled without any groaning and griping. They’ve just stayed with it. Hopefully, this is the start.”
Copeland scored his 30 points in 29 minutes — 19 in the first half and 11 in the second — hitting 12 of 14 shots overall. Gill, who missed the first two games with a groin strain, bounced off the bench to hit 6 of 9 shots, including 4 of 5 3-pointers.
Those two sparked an overall 52.9 percent shooting performance (36 of 68) three days after Nebraska hit 28.1 percent in a 23-point drilling at St. John’s.
A simple message came out of a team discussion about that loss.
“We played soft,” Copeland said. “We can’t do that again.”
Smooth was the word for Copeland on Sunday against the defending Big Sky champions.
The 6-foot-9, 221-pound junior darted through the offensive end, hitting 3 of 4 3-pointers, canning a variety of short- to mid-range jumpers and pitching in with three offensive rebounds to keep possessions alive.
Such work is what Husker teammates saw semi-regularly through summer free-play and fall practices as Copeland worked to get back into basketball shape.
“I’m guarding him most every day,” said fellow forward Isaiah Roby, who had 11 points, four rebounds and four assists Sunday. “I’ve definitely seen him do this, and I know he can do it for us.”
Added Gill: “He’s been doing this his whole life. I’ve known him forever. This is him. This is what we expected.”
Copeland, who had 32 points and nine rebounds at Georgetown in a game against Marquette, said some input from home has helped him get through a slow start (31.8 percent shooting, 7.0 points per game).
“My dad calls pretty much daily to let me know to keep working and stay positive, and that it was eventually going to happen,” Copeland said. “I didn’t expect 30 points, but I’ll take it.”
As for Gill, he ruptured a patella tendon last Christmas night, which required major reconstructive surgery. The mere act of contributing Sunday left the 6-3, 195-pound senior bubbling.
“I’m just glad to be back playing after a year,” he said. “All of this feels great to be back doing something I love.”
Gill has been troubled by leg injuries since transferring from Louisville.
“I got cleared right before the season,” he said. “I just had to get my legs back. Missing those first two games was probably the best thing that happened for me. My legs feel great, I feel bouncy again. I feel like I’m getting back to myself.”
Copeland and Gill combined for 11 early points as Nebraska bolted to a 26-10 lead on North Dakota (2-2). Seven more points from Copeland helped boost NU’s margin to 45-27.
“We couldn’t turn it over and allow them to get some easy baskets, and they did,” UND coach Brian Jones said. “They scored 18 points in transition alone in the first half. You can’t beat a team of that caliber and athleticism like that.”
In the second half, North Dakota closed to nine points with 14:04 to play and was still within 10 points with 11:07 to go. But Nebraska took off on a 12-2 run, with five points each from Gill and Roby, to expand the lead to 20 points for the first time at 75-55.
Nebraska’s normal leading scorers, guards Glynn Watson and James Palmer, scored 13 and eight points, respectively. Yet big days from them weren’t needed with Copeland and Gill coming through.
“This is what this team has to be,” Miles said. “This is what we haven’t had. That’s what the depth is that we’ve talked about all year. The depth has got quality, and we can make plays.”
» Miles praised the defense of guard Evan Taylor on North Dakota guard Geno Crandall, who entered the game averaging 27.3 points a game. Crandall, who scored 37 points in the second half of a victory over Troy, didn’t make a field goal until 12:50 left in the game Sunday and finished with 13 points on 3-of-10 shooting.
» Freshman guard Thomas Allen (bruised tailbone) didn’t play. He played briefly at St. John’s last Thursday after not practicing ahead of time. When Allen continued to show discomfort in Saturday’s practice, Miles shut him down to heal. Allen is expected to play in the Advocare Classic in Orlando, Florida.
» The Huskers will face Central Florida (3-0) and 7-foot-6 center Tacko Fall on Thanksgiving at 5 p.m. It’s the first of three games in four days in the eight-team tournament. The other teams on NU’s side of the bracket are West Virginia and Marist. The opposite bracket has Missouri, Oregon State, St. John’s and Long Beach State.
» Nebraska’s 92 points were the most in regulation since beating Southeastern Louisiana 92-65 two years ago.