One Down ... 19 To Go
Nebraska took the lead for good 67 seconds into the game, and after building a 13-2 lead, never let the margin dip below nine points.
After the Huskers had dusted off a 75-60 victory over Illinois to begin the Big Ten Conference basketball season, coach Tim Miles walked into the locker room, and somebody had already written “MINNESOTA” on the white board.
That’s the Huskers’ next conference opponent, on Wednesday.
“Somebody’s mind is in the right spot,” Miles said, “at least one guy – the guy with decent handwriting.”
Point being, Nebraska has 19 more conference games over the next three months, and a few more critical nonconference games remaining, so maintaining an even, level-headed approach is most wise.
Don’t get too complacent with a 15-point victory, even if it did equal Nebraska’s second-largest margin of victory in a Big Ten game last season.
On the contrary, don’t get too bummed about a couple of first-half scoring droughts, or a season-high 16 turnovers, even if both probably prevented the Huskers from running a young Illinois team completely out of the gym.
“It was interesting,” Miles said, “after the game, James (Palmer Jr.) was going to be interviewed on TV, and I said, ‘You did a great job tonight, James.’ And he goes, ‘Yeah, too many turnovers, man, I’ve got to clean that up.’ That’s what you want to hear.
“And he wouldn’t have to say that. He could say, ‘Remember I went to the foul line 14 times or whatever,’ but it is always good when you hear it.”
Indeed, Palmer led Nebraska (7-1, 1-0 Big Ten) with 23 points and went 12-of-14 on free throws, as the Huskers enjoyed a decisive advantage at the foul line against a younger, smaller Illinois team.
Illinois coach Brad Underwood joked in his opening remarks of his news conference about how it appeared his team was trying to set a Nebraska record for the number of Palmer free throws in a game.
“It’s really funny,” Underwood said. “You spend a couple of days, and most of our talk was about not fouling. The one thing Palmer does, he puts a lot of fouls on people. We wanted him to shoot the ball.
“We’ve got to grow up in that area. We’ve got to become more disciplined. That was frustrating, but he’s an awfully good player.”
Illinois (2-6, 0-1) starts two freshmen and a sophomore, and three of its top five scorers are newcomers. Their first Big Ten Conference road experience proved eye opening, as Nebraska scored on its first seven possessions in an early blitz that put the Pinnacle Bank Arena crowd of 11,794 in good spirits.
“No disrespect in any sort of capacity to Notre Dame,” said Underwood, whose team was coming off a 76-74 road loss to the Irish, “but it’s a little different environment here, and it’s your first Big Ten game.
“This placed was a little more juiced, a little more atmosphere than South Bend. I don’t mean that in any disrespectful any way.”
Illinois also played Gonzaga, now the nation’s No. 1 team, to six points, making Sunday’s early good start monumental for Nebraska.
“It was really important, with these guys, to get on top of them, and then keep them at an arm’s length,” Miles said. “That has been hard for a lot of teams to do. Gonzaga hasn’t done it. Notre Dame didn’t do it. We were able to.
“I think getting to foul line for us was important. Then, the fact that we made some threes tonight helped too. If we can do both of those, then you’re a tough out.”
Nebraska went 25-of-30 on free throws, and 6-of-14 on 3-pointers, while overcoming foul trouble for senior point guard Glynn Watson Jr., limited to 23 minutes. He missed an 8-minute chunk in the second half after picking up his fourth foul.
“We needed that,” Miles said. “It wasn’t always pretty. But that’s just the way … (Illinois) is going to muck it up, so to speak, and you’re going to have to deal with it. It was unfortunate, but it was part of the deal. I was happy with how all the guys did, but I was not comfortable at any point without (Watson).”
Nebraska led by 15 at halftime, and Illinois quickly cut the margin to nine early in the second half. The Illini once had a chance to pull within seven, but missed a short jumper at the 5:17 mark.
Watson responded with a 3-pointer, and quickly, Nebraska had its lead balloon to as many as 18 points.
Now, Nebraska prepares for Minnesota, which went 0-of-13 on 3-pointers in a 79-59 road loss to No. 16 Ohio State on Sunday.
“I like our team and I’m glad we won,” Miles said, “but I’m going to blink and we’re going to be getting ready for Minnesota on Wednesday.”
Reach Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.