Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Huskers Show Grit In Madison Rally

By Brian Rosenthal

 

Madison, Wis. – Nebraska seemingly couldn’t defend Ethan Happ without being whistled for a foul. Shots weren’t falling. The Huskers were out of rhythm, and Tim Miles could sense it.

So could the Kohl Center fans, who had been rather sleepy, but still sensed their Wisconsin basketball team beginning to pull away with 9:59 remaining in Monday night’s game.

The Badgers had suddenly built their lead to 11 points, and no longer had the video board’s “Kiss Cam,” which featured a girl storming out on her annoyed male companion, generated the loudest crowd noise of the night.

That came on Khalill Iverson's impressive reverse, one-handed jam at the midway point of the second half.

Yet just as quickly as Happ had established his path to the free-throw line, these Huskers turned the tide, hung tough and found a way to victory.

“We just stayed positive, everybody on the bench, whether you weren’t playing at all or you were playing and things weren’t going your way,” Nebraska junior forward Isaac Copeland said. “We all stayed together and picked each other up.”

Down double digits, Nebraska changed offensive philosophies and defensive looks, and outscored Wisconsin 30-8 the remainder of the game for an impressive 74-63 victory that took serious fortitude and moxie.

“I don’t know if we really broke their spirit. I don’t remember feeling that way,” Copeland said. “I just remember looking up and saying, ‘Oh, we’ve only got a five-point lead, we need to keep it going.”

That, Nebraska did, and as a result ended a brutal stretch of four games in eight days with three straight victories to improve to 17-8 overall, and 8-4 in the Big Ten Conference.

“We just got out of our sets offensively and decided to go spread motion and see if we could get guys playing off each other, get a little more rhythm,” Miles said.

That worked.

James Palmer Jr. began attacking the rim with more frequency and success and finished with a game-high 28 points, including 11-of-12 shooting on free throws.

“Once we knew they were going to guard us one-on-one,” Palmer said, “we just tried to get to the rim.”

Defense, though, really swung momentum Nebraska’s direction.

Happ, the 6-foot-10 All-American junior center, scored 18 points in the first half and continued to abuse Nebraska inside early in the second half. All the while, fouls piled up on the Huskers, who had two players, Jordy Tshimanga and Isaiah Roby, with 4 fouls apiece less than 7 minutes into the second half.

So Miles, who had success with the 1-3-1 zone on a few first-half possessions, changed to that defense almost exclusively for the game’s final 10 minutes. Not only that, but for the first time this season, Nebraska pressed and trapped out of that zone, befuddling the Badgers, who lost their offensive sync.

“You’ve got to change the momentum of the game,” Miles said. “Both of those things worked hand-in-hand, and you could just see our guys growing in confidence.

“Those last 10 minutes, when you’re playing four games in eight days, three on the road, that’s pretty good fight from your team, to get out of here with a W.”

Happ finished with 25 points on 8-of-19 shooting from the field but didn’t make a field goal in the final 14:22. He was held to four field goal attempts thereafter, all misses, and never did find a rhythm at the foul line, where he was a dismal 8-of-19.

In the first half, Happ made his first career 3-pointer in three seasons, on only his fifth attempt this season. In the second half, senior forward Aaron Moesch, who hadn’t attempted a 3-pointer this season, hit his first attempt for a 50-40 lead.

“I think guys were kind of disappointed with how they were playing when they were down 10," Miles said. "I think that’s when we went more five-out motion, and you can see their confidence grows as they feed off each other, and we got some defensive stops, too.”

After Iverson's jam gave Wisconsin its biggest lead of 55-44, the Huskers responded with a 10-0 run.

Nebraska then tied the game, 58-58, with 5:25 remaining on Copeland’s layup on an assist from Watson, and went ahead 60-58 on Palmer’s driving basket with 4:35 to play. Copeland stretched the lead to four with two free throws, Palmer made two more free throws for a six-point lead, and the Badgers got no closer than five thereafter.

While Wisconsin finished 16-of-31 at the foul line, Nebraska was 24-of-28, with the 24 makes the most by a Wisconsin opponent this season. The Badgers also committed a season-high 24 fouls.

Nebraska, meanwhile, committed only six turnovers in winning in the Kohl Center for the first time, and completing a season sweep of Wisconsin (10-13, 3-7). The 11-point lead was Wisconsin's largest lost in the second half of a game it lost, and the largest margin in a comeback victory for the Huskers this season.

Nebraska finished the month of January 7-3, it's most wins in January since the 1979-80 team also won seven, although two were against nonconference teams. This is the first time in school history the Husker have won seven league games in January. 

“What’s great to see is some guys who have been through some real losing stay in there and battle and learn how to win,” Miles said, “and some of those older, veteran guys who are transfers or whatever, play with a fearlessness that, ‘We can do this.’ ”

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

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