Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Hustling Defense Keys Upset of Gophers

By Brian Rosenthal

On a night gritty, tough-nosed, hustling defense spurred the Nebraska men’s basketball team to victory, what was Isaac Copeland’s favorite defensive play?

“Glynn’s steal into what should’ve been a dunk,” Copeland said, “but he laid it up.”

Glynn Watson Jr., sitting a spot away from Copeland at the postgame interview table, looked ahead and smiled.

“I touched the rim though,” said Watson, a 6-foot junior guard.

Duby Okeke, seated between the two, shook his head.

“It wasn’t a dunk,” Okeke confirmed, to which Watson responded, “It was a rim graze.”

Copeland interjected with a more serious thought, admitting Watson’s steal and score "was a big play" for Nebraska, which then led by 17 points with 5 minutes remaining against the nation’s No. 14-ranked team and held off a late Minnesota charge for a 78-68 victory.

Okeke, a 6-foot-8 senior center, offered his favorite defensive moment, too. He gave sophomore center Jordy Tshimanga credit for reading a ball screen, getting in a stance and tipping the ball away.

Indeed, Nebraska had very active hands against a Minnesota team that entered Tuesday night shooting 49.1 percent from the field and averaging a Big Ten Conference best 89.4 points per game.

Nebraska (7-3, 1-1 Big Ten) blocked nine shots – three by Okeke – collected five steals and deflected many other balls that kept the Gophers out of sync. They shot a meager 32.4 percent from the field.

Yes, Okeke agreed, defense is key for this team.

“We have all the capabilities,” Okeke said, “but we just need everybody locked in, and that’s just like a mental thing, because we have the talent. This is probably the most talented team I’ve ever been a part of, so it’s just coming ready to play, coming ready to be in a stance, and just the energy kind of travels, so if guys come ready to play, we’ll be fine.”

A hungry, energetic crowd of 13,847 at Pinnacle Bank Arena roared its approval early in the game when the Huskers were hounding the Gophers throughout a possession that ended with a shot clock violation. Later, they cheered mightily when Isaiah Roby stepped in the paint and took a charge.

Now, since they see firsthand what an all-out defensive effort can do, and how it ignites a Nebraska crowd as much as a dunk, can players bottle this up and do it again?

“Yes, I feel like this is our team,” Watson said. “When guys share the ball and get each other open, make it easier, and just playing defense – I mean, that’s got to be one of our main things also. So if we keep doing that, there’s not going to be too many teams that can beat us.”

Not when combined with what Watson did offensively.

Watson scored a game-high 29 points and led Nebraska with nine rebounds. Whenever it seemed the Huskers were approaching a lull, or when the Gophers crept a little closer, Watson responded, either with a 3-pointer or with a nifty, driving layup.

“This is the all-conference Glynn, right?” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said.

This much is certain: When Watson is on, the Huskers are, too. Nebraska, which shot 56.5 percent after halftime, gained separation in the opening minutes of the second half when Watson scored seven straight points to expand an eight-point halftime lead.

Okeke followed with a thunder dunk on an assist from James Palmer Jr., and suddenly, the Huskers led 48-32 less than 5 minutes into the second half.

Minnesota (8-2, 1-1) never really recovered from that spurt.

“They just played better than we did,” Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said. “When we needed to get stops, we didn’t. Offensively, obviously, we didn’t have it going, and then if you don’t have it going offensively, you have got to get stops and get out on the break, and we did not do that.

“So credit to them; it was a tough environment to play in.”

Pitino said Nebraska is a “good team” that will only get better as it gains more continuity from its transfers, like Copeland, Palmer and Okeke. Copeland finished with 12 points, five rebounds and two blocked shots, and Palmer had 11 points, three rebounds and four assists.

“I thought we played really hard tonight, too,” said Miles, whose team had only one day to prepare for a Top 15 team after opening Big Ten play with an 86-57 loss at No. 3 Michigan State on Sunday.

He thanked and credited assistant coach Kenya Hunter for scouting the Gophers, who boast a big, formidable frontcourt.

“Kenya came to me on Monday late morning and said, ‘Hey I think we should do this, and we’re going to double this guy this way and this other guy the other way,’ and I’m like, ‘Oh boy,’ “ Miles said. “We’ve been trying to take away threes, but we said OK. I agreed, because you cannot let them get going inside, or they’ll brutalize you. I thought our guys did a really, really good job.”

Good enough to hold Jordan Murphy in check. The 6-foot-7 junior forward had been averaging 21 points and 12.9 rebounds but had to work for every bit of his 12 points, on 4-of-12 shooting, and 10 rebounds.

Nebraska, in fact, out-rebounded Minnesota 42-38, with all nine Huskers who played credited with at least one rebound, and seven players with at least three.

“Like you gang-tackle in football,” Miles said, “we gang-rebounded tonight.”

Whatever you call it, Nebraska will need more of it in games to come. The Huskers face instate rival Creighton on Saturday, take next week off for finals, and then will host No. 2 Kansas on Dec. 16.

The Jayhawks will enter Pinnacle Bank Arena for the first time, and a home court advantage like the one fans created Tuesday night could help the Huskers’ quest to remain unbeaten at home.

“They were so loud, there was such a great energy there,” Miles said. “Pinnacle, I’ve never dreamt they could be like that when I was coaching all these places. I’ve been to some really cool places where it gets loud and obnoxious, but Pinnacle has really got a great vibe, and the guys feed off that, there’s no doubt. That was the first time it’s been like that this season, and I think that helped.”

Reach Brian at brosenthal@huskers.com or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.

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