LINCOLN — The crowd stood and cheered for the final 30 seconds. The band played a victory tune. And for the first time in two months, the Huskers left the court smiling.
Nebraska beat Minnesota 78-65 Wednesday night at Pinnacle Bank Arena. The Huskers withstood a hot second half from Gopher forward Jamison Battle to snag their first win of 2022.
Among the droughts snapped: 10 straight losses, 15 straight to Big Ten teams and 19 in a row to high-major opponents.
Bryce McGowens and Derrick Walker were still wearing postgame grins as they entered the media room.
“We’ve been trying to win a Big Ten game for so long,” the junior forward Walker said. “It’s definitely a huge weight lifted off our shoulders for us.
“It’s great. We won. We can finally smile and be happy.”
The Huskers grabbed control with a 12-0 second-half run that lasted two minutes, when Alonzo Verge scored or assisted on 10 of those points, including when he inbounded the ball to himself off defender Eric Curry’s back for a layup. He forced a timeout when he made a pull-up 3 from the left wing in transition. And with 11:43 to play, he sliced through the defense with a no-look bullet to Walker that led to a layup.
Verge finished with 22 points, four assists and three steals, including 20 points in the second half. And despite five turnovers, coach Fred Hoiberg thought Verge played his best game at Nebraska on Wednesday.
“He was, start to finish, I thought as good as he's been all year,” Hoiberg said. "He's had really good stretches and flashes, but what he did getting in the paint, making plays ... I think that’s Alonzo’s best game.”
The Gophers countered with a 21-point half from Jamison Battle, who was scoreless in the first half. Battle made five second-half 3-pointers and grabbed 10 rebounds. His final 3, which came with 8:59 to play, cut Nebraska’s once 20-point lead to 12.
The Huskers had enough perimeter juice to hold serve, however.
Verge crossed Gopher guards into a daze. Bryce McGowens (16 points) scored a circus shot and-1 while falling to the floor. And the Huskers, for once, closed a win without drama.
Nebraska (7-17, 1-12 Big Ten) led for all but 23 seconds Wednesday and never trailed. After Saturday’s loss to Northwestern, which McGowens deemed embarrassing, “We couldn’t go out like that again.”
And the Huskers’ energy felt different from the opening tip.
Nebraska led 32-21 at halftime thanks to its most active defensive half of the season — and a few careless Minnesota passes. The Gophers (11-10, 2-10) committed 12 turnovers in the first half after entering Wednesday with the sixth-lowest turnover rate in Division I (14.1%). They finished with 18. They averaged nine per game.
Nebraska scored 15 first-half points off turnovers, capitalizing on those mistakes early to grab a 9-2 lead and energize a sparse weeknight crowd. Bryce McGowens caught two alley-oops — one with one hand — from his brother, Trey, in the first three minutes.
“Trey likes to run, I like to run,” Bryce said. “Just throw it and see what I can do. I’d say (we have) a little connection.”
Bryce commanded the highlight reel, but Trey steadied Nebraska all night. The elder McGowens finished with six points, seven rebounds, five assists and two steals while taking shifts guarding Payton Willis and Battle, Minnesota's top two scorers. Bryce could tell his brother would play with extra “juice” as soon as they arrived at the arena.
“He was ready to take on the challenge today, and we knew that when he walked in the door,” Bryce said. “He was ready to play ball. He was psyched up.”
The Huskers hope to bring that juice to Iowa City, where they have one more long losing streak to break at 1 p.m. Sunday. NU hasn’t won at Iowa since 2012, Doc Sadler’s last season as coach.
It won’t be easier to snap that streak. The Hawkeyes boast the nation's 10th-ranked offense, per KenPom, and a Big Ten player of the year candidate in sophomore Keegan Murray (22.4 points, 8.6 rebounds per game).
But those concerns can wait.
The Huskers won a basketball game, which means the pressure is off — even if only for a few hours. Verge, PBA’s top heckling target, thanked fans who continued applauding him after his TV interview Wednesday. Walker, one of four Huskers — Kobe Webster, Lat Mayen and Eduardo Andre are the others — to play in all 15 consecutive Big Ten losses, no longer bears that burden.
And Hoiberg, whose future in Lincoln has been debated over daily — sometimes to his face — is afforded a night of peace.
“It’s gonna be better,” Hoiberg said of the postgame mood in his home. Then, as he exited the interview room, “I took a breath today.”