CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Nebraska’s 72-66 loss to Big Ten cellar-dweller Illinois, which broke a six-game winning streak, will go in the record book as occurring Sunday.
Coach Tim Miles isn’t so sure the game wasn’t lost a couple of days earlier.
“We hadn’t practiced that great coming in,” Miles said. “And we played that way.”
Against an Illini team that was ninth and 13th in the league in field-goal and 3-point shooting, the Huskers gave up 33 points in the first 23 possessions to fall behind by 11 points. A halftime defensive change to a 2-3 zone sparked a 16-4 rally that put NU up 52-47 with 14:04 to play.
Then came a scoring drought of 5:37, soon to be followed by a field-goal dry spell of 5:41.
Add in Illini junior forward Leron Black’s career-high 28 points, and that’s how the fourth-place team in the Big Ten — Nebraska (20-9, 11-5) — loses to the 14th-place team — Illinois (13-15, 3-12).
Such “bad losses” become talking points for the NCAA tournament talking heads.
Nebraska entered the day 55th in the NCAA RPI, while Illinois was 194th. The furrowing of the brow grows more pronounced.
“We were worried coming in, so, yeah,” Miles said. “But it doesn’t change anything. We’re still worried. We just have to win as much as we can and see what happens from there.
“It might be disappointing, but nobody is going to feel sorry for you.”
Forward Isaac Copeland, who led Nebraska with 17 points and added five rebounds and two blocks, said he didn’t want to talk about how practice went ahead of Sunday’s game.
But fellow forward Isaiah Roby, who had 13 of his 14 points and five of his 10 rebounds in the first half, attested that preparation time wasn’t the best.
Fans often ask how a team can practice poorly while in a surge for an NCAA tourney berth. Former Husker and longtime NBA player Mikki Moore used to call it a function of “Freaky February” — a point in the season when a team on a roll suddenly can’t pump up the tires for a game or two.
Roby hinted at that, even with the rush from the Huskers having won 8 of 9 and 13 of 16 coming into sold-out State Farm Arena.
“It’s a long season,” he said. “We want to win all the games, but sometimes we come into practice a little bit down. I guess we’re not good enough to just turn it on and off, practice and games. We have to practice just how we want to play.”
Friday was the downer day of practice.
“We addressed it,” Miles said. “We had a little ‘Come to me, boys’ meeting. We practiced pretty hard after that. But then we weren’t very good yesterday, either.
“As a coach, I know they want to get to the game. But you have to do the work to get there. I know we took these guys seriously. We know what Illinois can do. But we just weren’t up for it.”
Nebraska needed James Palmer’s 3-pointer at the buzzer in Lincoln on Jan. 15 to beat Illinois 64-63.
This time, the Illini played without center Michael Finke (concussion), who had 16 points and 10 rebounds the first game, while Nebraska had center Jordy Tshimanga, who missed the first matchup while contemplating a transfer.
Even with a more pronounced edge in personnel this time, Nebraska couldn’t overcome allowing Illinois to shoot 62.1 percent in the first half, including 7 of 9 on 3-pointers. The Illini came in hitting 29 percent on 3s.
“It was just ridiculous that we had kind of gone to sleep,” Miles said. “Our first-half defense was so disappointing.”
After the middle-of-the-second-half scoring drought, Nebraska took the lead at 61-58 with 6:01 to play on point guard Glynn Watson’s 3-pointer. That was his only basket in nine tries. The next basket didn’t come until Palmer hit one with 19.6 seconds left, and Illinois up by four.
NU’s ability to score just 14 points in the final 20 possessions left Miles puzzled. But he didn’t blame the pressure of playing for NCAA attention.
“It was a tie game with 6:54 to go,” he said. “We have eight possessions. Four of them, we go 1 out of 2 at the line each time. We make a 3, but Glynn misses a point-blank layup, Palmer forces a layup, then Palmer throws it out of bounds.
“That’s not pressure. That’s just being locked in and doing what you’re supposed to do.”