LINCOLN — A tune-up game against a 20-point underdog should feature things like a 29-3 run in a span of eight minutes.
What a tune-up game probably shouldn’t showcase is flaws from the favorite that loom so large they overshadow the victory, as was the case in Nebraska’s 73-49 win over Western Illinois on Saturday.
As Nebraska dribbled out the clock, Pinnacle Bank Arena calmly applauded the win, almost confused as to how to feel about the Huskers’ fifth victory of the year. Nebraska (5-1) overwhelmed the Leathernecks, keeping them to season-low 49 points on 30 percent shooting, but won by only one point the second half, a half in which most of the starters played most of the minutes.
Coming off the team’s first loss of the year against Texas Tech, Nebraska escaped with a win. And as a team, it also felt a little conflicted about the outcome.
“I think we played all right,” junior forward Isaiah Roby said. “I mean, we know it’s early in the season, but obviously we have a lot to learn from (Texas Tech), but I think we played well today.”
Nebraska played sloppy and sleepy in the opening five minutes, and trailed Western Illinois 9-4 early. WIU 7-foot center Brandon Gilbeck, the reigning Summit League defensive player of the year, picked up two quick fouls, and Nebraska attacked the open rim for the rest of the afternoon. Nebraska scored 30 of its first 40 points in the paint.
A jumper from Glynn Watson at the elbow sparked a 13-0 run to take control of the game. Watson finished with 20 points and nine rebounds. James Palmer again had a slow start, missing his first four shots, but went on a solo 8-0 run near the end of the half to bump the Nebraska lead to 27-14. Palmer finished with 19 points. Over the next eight minutes of play, NU outscored the Leathernecks by 26. That proved to be too much of a comeback for 2-4 Western Illinois.
Nebraska will have one day of preparation and then fly to South Carolina to play No. 16 Clemson (5-1) in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
The team is excited for that game, coach Tim Miles said. Has been for a long time. But it can also sense how much better it needs to play in order to win that game.
Following the Texas Tech loss, Miles challenged his team to pass the ball better. During a 29-3 run against WIU, that happened. In the first half, Nebraska was 12 for 19 from the field on shots that came after three or more passes.
“That’s good basketball,” Miles said.
But that didn’t continue. After going up 50-17, Western Illinois dropped into a zone, baiting NU to shoot. The Huskers obliged and shot 15 3s in the second half, making just three. NU shot just 36 percent in the second half, and 20 percent from 3, and WIU cut the lead from 33 down to 18 in the second half.
“I think some of it tonight was, we got a big lead and Billy Joe Bob thought, ‘You know, I only have about seven. I wouldn’t mind getting into double figures.’ So he just jacks one up there,” Miles said. “All year this has been a concern, so it does not surprise me to have a night here or a night there to not shoot the 3 well. What concerns me are those quick outside shots in the half-court set.”
There aren’t moral victories, Western Illinois coach Billy Wright said.
“But I’m proud of the way our guys fought and competed,” he said. “You look at some things that we didn’t do so well the first half, we were able to correct in the second half and it was 33-32 in the second half.”
The tune-up game wasn’t pretty, but it served its purpose. Nebraska has, so far this year, managed to win the games it should at home, all by more than 20 points. And now it heads into the first true road game of the year against No. 16 Clemson on Monday night.
“We’re looking forward to a battle,” Miles said.