For the first 10 minutes, Wednesday night’s home contest vs. No. 21 Wisconsin looked like it might finally be the game Nebraska got it done.
Instead, it ended just like the previous 25 Big Ten Conference games, with the Huskers quickly falling apart down the stretch in a lopsided 61-48 defeat.
A blistering start to the game saw NU (4-11 overall, 0-8 Big Ten) score 22 points and go up by as much as eight points after 10 minutes of play. From there, it put just 26 more points on the board with 16 turnovers over the final 30 minutes.
Wisconsin (15-6, 9-5) only shot 32.3 percent from the field but still led by as many as 16 in a double-digit victory.
As mentioned, the game couldn’t have started much better for Nebraska, as its offensive flow and efficiency through the first 10 minutes looked as good as it had all season.
The Huskers made eight of their first 12 shots and started 4-for-4 from 3-point range to go on a 12-0 run and take a 22-14 lead out of the gates. That marked NU’s largest lead since it led Wisconsin 21-11 in Madison back on Dec. 22.
But the hot start wouldn’t last much longer, as Nebraska would go on to score just four points over the final eight minutes of the half and allow the Badgers to take a 30-27 lead into halftime on a buzzer-beater 3-pointer by Aleem Ford.
Wisconsin shot just 30.3 percent from the field and had a stretch of more than six minutes without a made field goal at one point in the first half. Yet 12 Nebraska turnovers and a sudden shooting meltdown were enough to put UW ahead at the break.
Things didn’t get any better to start the second half, as the Huskers committed seven fouls and three turnovers with one made shot through the first five minutes.
Nebraska ended up making just four field goals from the 12:07 mark of the first half to 12:15 in the second, a stretch of nearly 20 minutes of play. In the process, NU was also called for nine fouls in the first eight minutes after halftime to put Wisconsin in the bonus for the final game’s 15:17.
It was all Badgers from there on, as they were able to extend their lead to as much as 55-39 and never saw its advantage drop below nine the rest of the way.
Following their 8-for-12 start, the Huskers shot 10-of-37 from the field to close the game, with only two of those makes coming at the rim.
Lat Mayen led NU with 14 points and seven rebounds, while Teddy Allen returned to the starting lineup and added 12 points but also had five turnovers. Dalano Banton finished with six points and had game-highs with 10 boards and five assists.
Jonathan Davis had 10 points and was the only Badger to score in double figures, but five others added at least eight points.
The Huskers will get right back to work on Friday night when they play host to No. 6 Illinois for an 8 p.m. CT tip on Big Ten Network.
1. Things were already bad, but they could get much worse from here
The fact that Nebraska lost to Wisconsin was nothing new, nor was how a competitive game turned into a lopsided defeat.
But the totality of this season, with only four wins and a month-long setback due to COVID-19, was already testing the Huskers’ resiliency. A game like this one could be a knockout blow.
Nebraska played its best 10 minutes of conference play to open the game, but as soon as adversity hit, they reverted to the same mistakes that have plagued them all year. It was like the team knew what was coming; like it was an inevitable outcome.
The Huskers are 0-9 in conference play and have lost 25 straight league games dating back to last season. That equals the program’s other two longest conference losing streaks (13 and 12 games) combined.
It also ties for the second-longest active losing skid of any Division-I program, trailing only Chicago State’s run of 42 consecutive WAC losses.
A stretch of failure like that could break even the most mentally strong team in the country, and while head coach Fred Hoiberg and his players insist that they haven’t lost hope, it’s teetering on the brink right now.
Even worse, Nebraska will have one day of prep before hosting Illinois, the No. 6 team in the country right now, on Friday night.
As bad as this season has been, it could quickly get much, much worse if the Huskers can’t suddenly find a remedy for all of their glaring problems.
2. Nebraska can’t stay out of its own way
Of all the issues Nebraska is dealing with at the moment, the startling number of turnovers in its three games following the COVID pause has to rank near the top.
After giving the ball away 17 and 18 times like it did at Michigan State and Minnesota, respectively, the Huskers committed another 17 turnovers against a Wisconsin team that hardly ever pressures.
The majority of the turnovers on Wednesday night were from careless mistakes – throwing cross-court passes through traffic, losing the basketball while over-dribbling, falling while driving, jumping with the ball with no real plan of what to do next.
These errors are due to a lack of focus, panicking when adversity hits, and a lack of trust in yourself and your teammates.
Those things have been problems for NU all year, and they’re only getting worse as the losses continue to mount.
3. For a moment, the Huskers were what they want to be
As bad as the final 30 minutes were for Nebraska, those first 10 were still the best it has looked in conference play and maybe the entire season.
The Huskers played with intention and purpose on offense, moving the ball with crisp passes, slashing to the hoop on back cuts, and making all of the “simple plays” Hoiberg has harped on for weeks.
Even with the turnovers, NU finally looked closer to the ideal picture of what Hoiberg wants his system to be than ever.
Just like the 10 minutes Nebraska had in its loss to Indiana on Jan. 10 when it erased an 18-point deficit and took the lead, that opening stretch against Wisconsin showed what the Huskers were capable of when they do what they’re supposed to do.
In a season with so few silver linings, those first 10 minutes against the Badgers can at least serve as more tangible evidence that NU could be so much better than 25 straight league losses.