It’s really hard to beat a team three times in a season, and Northwestern entered the first round of the Big Ten tournament having already beaten 13th-seeded Nebraska twice.
Luckily for the Wildcats, that theory didn’t hold true as they pulled off a miraculous second-half comeback to win 71-69.
NU got off to a cold start, missing their first four attempts on the field before senior forward Pete Nance found freshman guard Julian Roper II on a cut to put the Cats on the scoreboard. The Cornhuskers came to Indianapolis on a three-game winning streak. On the road, Nebraska looked like a different team than NU had beaten by 24 and 12 points, respectively, in the first two meetings.
The Cats took their first lead of the game behind a drive-and-kick from second-year guard Ty Berry to redshirt junior guard Chase Audige. Audige canned the triple, and shortly after Berry hit a three of his own to increase the lead to 13-10.
Nebraska guard Alonzo Verge Jr. is coming off a 26-point performance in an upset victory over the then No. 1. 10 Wisconsin, had his fingerprints on the game at the start. Verge filled the stat sheet in the first 20 minutes, recording nine points, five rebounds, five assists and three steals. The Chicago native led a Cornhusker defensive effort that was engaged from the jump, gobbling up the drive lanes and stealing the ball eight times in the first half.
Nebraska’s 7-2 surge saw their advantage climb to 24-18 as coach Chris Collins called a timeout to stop the bleeding. The injury not only lingered, but worsened, as Nebraska stretched the lead to 39-25 at halftime.
NU might have viewed the first half simply as a wound to the flesh of Monty Python, but the Cats desperately needed a blood transfusion at intermission.
NU jumped from the break with an 8-2 run to cut the lead to eight points. Nebraska fought back, however, opening their biggest lead of the game at 50-35, behind the buckets of Verge, Trey McGowens and Kobe Webster.
But just when the cats were seemingly on the ropes, they received a spark. Five players – Roper, Nance, Berry, Boo Buie and Elyjah Williams – found the scoresheet. Buie capped the run 14-0, burying a 3-point corner — his first made three of the game — and stomping triumphantly into half court as Nebraska called time out.
The pair of teams continued to trade blows throughout the second half, with the Cornhuskers leading by just three points in the under-eight timeout.
A pair of straight 3-pointers from Nance and Buie gave NU their first lead since the first half. Nebraska quickly regained the lead behind two free throws from Derrick Walker, before a patent impact streak from Ryan Young set in. Young grabbed a few offensive boards, hit a layup and one of three free throws to give the Cats a two-point advantage in the under-four timeout.
And Buie, for all the bouts of questionable shot selection, was critical in the second half. Coming off a screen, the Albany native fired the most important shot of the game at that point: a high from the sideline, 3-pointer to give NU a 69-65 lead.
The Cornhuskers managed to tie the game at 69 apiece, before Audige crossed the line for a pair of free throws. He missed the first, but canned the second as Verge and Nebraska ran on the floor by one. It was there, in the middle of the paint, that Buie had his biggest impact on the game: he got in front of Verge and fired a charge to return the ball to the Cats.
Buie did one of the two and NU were able to walk out of Gainbridge Fieldhouse with a win on day one of the Big Ten tournament. Survive and move forward.
TAKE AWAY FOOD
1. Nebraska defense committed from the jump in the first half, but falls in the second
Going into Wednesday’s contest, opponents Nebraska are averaging 78.8 points per game, a mark that placed the Cornhuskers 348th out of 358 DI teams in points allowed. NU had splendid offensive outings against the Cornhuskers, totaling 87 and 77 points in the two regular season matchups. But this Nebraska team was different from the one the Cats faced in February. NU was unable to settle into any semblance of rhythm offensively, as Trey McGowens and Verge made life difficult for the Cats backcourt. Audige shot 2 for 11 from the field, while Buie struggled throughout the first half, scoring his first points from the free-throw line with less than a minute to go. In the second half it was a total upset, however. NU were downed 53.3% from the field, 54.5% from beyond the arc and, more importantly, made late free throws.
2. Verge wins the third battle against Buie statistically, but not on the ground
Although they didn’t face each other defensively, the Big Ten’s opening opener featured two back-to-back playmakers. Nebraska’s Verge got the better of NU’s Buie on that occasion, recording an overall effort of 21 points, seven boards and nine assists. Buie struggled on the field, shooting 4-for-11 from the field, but made critical shots in big moments for the Cats in the second half and drew a charge on Verge late to virtually seal the game.
3. Northwestern’s season lives to see another day
Survive and move on, folks, that’s what March is all about. The Cats, against all odds, overcame a 20-point second-half deficit to advance to the second round of the Big Ten tournament. This NU team got a lot of shtick for their late game performances, but when it mattered most, the Big Ten team of Collins and Chicago did it.
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