CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Glynn Watson had two guys on him, but he needed to score. He hadn’t yet. And this, as the senior guard has said, is his team.
So Watson drove baseline, threw his arm around Giorgi Bezhanishvili to seal him off. He was caught. Offensive foul.
James Palmer ran over to help Watson up off the floor, but he declined, standing up quickly. With his head down, Watson walked directly to the bench with his third foul.
Frustration and failure was the story of Nebraska’s 71-64 loss on Saturday at Illinois, the program’s fifth in a row and seventh in nine games.
The Illini are 7-15 on the year, but proved over 40 minutes they were the more complete team. Guard Kipper Nichols hadn’t scored in five games, but led the Illini with 18 points and six rebounds. Trent Frazier added 11 points and four rebounds.
James Palmer scored a team-high 22 points for the Huskers, and Tanner Borchardt had a career day, with 12 points and 18 rebounds. But Watson, Isaiah Roby and Thomas Allen shot a combined 31 percent, 11 for 35. And Illinois’ bench outscored Nebraska’s 36-4.
Nebraska shot 36 percent from the floor and 3 for 23 from 3-point range. The Huskers were 0 for 11 from 3-point territory in the second half. Just 11 for 21 from the free throw line.
“We did enough to play winning basketball tonight,” NU coach Tim Miles said on his postgame radio show. “Our kids are working their tails off. We gotta stay positive and understand that you can’t, you just have to keep competing. You can’t worry about outcome.”
Illinois sprung out to a 7-0 lead. Nebraska countered with a 10-0 run. The Huskers led 18-13 at one point after a dunk from freshman Amir Harris. But Illinois zoned up Nebraska, took away Palmer drives and outscored NU 23-7 over the next nine minutes and took a 38-29 lead into halftime.
Nebraska didn’t do anything to help its case in the opening minutes of the second half. NU missed its first four shots, turned it over three times and didn’t score a field goal until the 15:50 mark. Watson picked up his fourth foul on a technical. Nebraska fell behind 51-37 on an Illini 3-pointer at the shot clock buzzer.
Miles said recently the Huskers were playing with low confidence, and they played like it. Watson didn’t hit a field goal until the second half. Nana Akenten played just six minutes and was pulled after missing two shots and getting one rebound. Roby passed up mismatches down low. Often, Illinois made Nebraska’s offense look disjointed. The Illini turned Nebraska over just 10 times, but forced countless bad, long shots at the end of the shot clock, which led to points on the other end.
Borchardt was an outlier on Saturday. Eleven of his career high 18 rebounds were on offense, and he almost single-handedly kept Nebraska in the game with rebounds and outlet passes into transition.
“You look at 12 points and 18 rebounds, you can’t ask for much more out of him,” Miles said. “And it’s just effort, determination and mentality. That’s what I love about him. He’s not worried about anything but trying to help the team win.”
A late 7-0 run cut the Illinois lead to nine. But Nebraska missed seven of its last eight shots, including its last four. Illinois missed free throws late, but Nebraska missed almost everything.
With the loss Nebraska is tied for 13th in the Big Ten, in front of only Penn State, which is winless in conference play.
“We need something positive to happen,” Miles said. “Your spirit gets down when you get beat up a little bit. So I see great effort, but again, the general enthusiasm and spirit of a team suffers when you go through losing streaks.”