KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Dana Ford paced up and down his bench, his face scrunched, his fists clenched.
“C’mon now!” the Missouri State coach screamed.
“We in this!”
Ford put together a headache of a game plan for Nebraska on Monday in Kansas City. He threw the Bears into 1-3-1 zones after timeouts, he had his bigs draped all over Isaiah Roby down low, he had nearly everyone in the lane set up for a charge when James Palmer drove the lane.
For 30 minutes, it worked. They trailed Nebraska by seven at halftime. It was down to five, 40-35, with 18 minutes left in the game, and Ford could sense his team was about to make the Huskers sweat.
But then Nebraska guard Glynn Watson hit a 3. Isaac Copeland snagged an offensive rebound and scored with a foul. James Palmer hit a 3 from the wing, Thomas Allen stole a pass and layed in a easy bucket.
Just like that, Nebraska was up 50-39 in less than two minutes. After the Allen layup, Copeland hit a pull up jumper to make it a 13-point lead. Ford turned to his bench and threw his hands in the air.
What was he supposed to do?
“One through five of the starting lineup is very skilled, very athletic,” Ford said of Nebraska. “They’re old, they can shoot all five positions, they can really drive the ball.”
Nebraska (4-0) eventually overwhelmed Missouri State (3-1) in an 85-62 win on Monday in the opening game of the Hall of Fame Classic. Nebraska will play Texas Tech, a 78-63 winner over USC in Monday’s late game, in the championship Tuesday night.
James Palmer struggled to just eight points, and it took Nebraska 30 minutes to decode Ford’s defensive schemes. But the problem with stopping Nebraska this year is you can’t just take away its All-Big Ten player and call it good. And you can’t just play a zone and press and hope they’ll shoot themselves in the foot.
Eventually, they’ll find the hot hand. And one of their weapons will find their rhythm. Against Seton Hall, it was Palmer, who carried Nebraska with 29. On Monday, it was Copeland. The senior scored 23 in the Sprint Center, including 10 in a row for Nebraska at one point.
“It happened to be my night tonight,” Copeland said. “We have a couple guys who can do that.”
Watson added 16 points and four assists. Roby finished with 13 points, seven rebounds and four assists. Nana Akenten scored 11 off the bench. Nebraska shot 50 percent from the floor and 13 for 33 from 3-point range.
Missouri State forced Nebraska into tough, long 2- and 3-pointers. Most of the team struggled with that, except for Copeland.
“Isaac was tremendous,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said. “You wouldn’t know if he had 30, 25 or 5. He’s so even keeled. And that’s fun to coach.”
Miles wasn’t happy with Nebraska’s first half, mostly because his team was passing twice and jacking up shots. In the second half, Nebraska had 11 assists on 20 field goals and found open 3s and layups.
Miles gave kudos to Ford for keeping the game as close as it was. For bothering Nebraska as much as they did. Missouri State outrebounded Nebraska and scored more in the paint.
But postgame, that wasn’t Ford’s focus. He’s in his first year as coach at Missouri State, and he looked at Nebraska as a standard he wants to reach.
“They do a great job, they develop some guys, their starting five is really good,” Ford said.
Ford said Nebraska should’ve made the NCAA tournament last year. Will probably this year.
“My A.D. is back there, I think we’d take three out of seven NCAA tournament years,” Ford said. “They got a program.”
A program that, this year, is a tough code to crack. And isn’t satisfied.
After the game, Miles said he gave Copeland a hard time because he wasn’t smiling.
“I’ll smile if we win tomorrow night.”