LINCOLN — Hey, if you wanted art Saturday afternoon, there’s a big gallery on campus.
If you wanted a men’s basketball victory over Rutgers, you showed up at Pinnacle Bank Arena like Nebraska did wielding a lunch pail, a shovel and the will to work.
NU built a 16-point lead in the first eight minutes, then spent the rest of the day patching small leaks in the dam to secure a 67-55 victory in front of a sellout crowd of 15,351.
The Huskers (19-8, 10-4) have won five in a row, seven of eight and 12 of 15 to stay alone in fourth place in the Big Ten with four regular-season games left. Along the way, they’ve acquired a big fan in Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell.
As a player and an assistant at Connecticut and as a coach at Stony Brook, Pikiell has been a part of multiple NCAA tournament teams.
Nebraska looks like one to him.
“I’ve watched all their tapes,” Pikiell said. “They are on a good roll right now. They have good veteran guys. They have matchup problems for you. They can go big or small.
“Coach is doing a good job of coaching them up. They have a lot of answers. You need your veteran guards to be good down the stretch. They have a few go-to players. They shoot the ball well enough. And they’ve got great length.”
None of that mattered though to Rutgers (12-15, 2-12), known to muck up a game like few others.
The Scarlet Knights, though in last place in the Big Ten, are perpetually pesky with their scratch-and-claw defense and their scrambling offensive rebound production — both of which are ranked 15th nationally.
“I’m definitely sore,” said NU forward Isaiah Roby, who had 10 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks in 27 minutes. “Those guys play hard and they play physical.”
Nebraska went up 20-4 early, then saw Rutgers cut the lead to five points late in the first half. The Huskers again went back up by 10 early in the second half, only to see the Scarlet Knights cut the gap to six.
But a 10-0 run that included four points each from center Jordy Tshimanga and forward Isaac Copeland put NU up 48-32 with 14:37 left. Rutgers never got closer than 10 points again.
“The first half, I was worried because we had given up (some of) the lead,” coach Tim Miles said. “The second half, I thought we played well with the lead and earned the lead.
“I was pleased with the second half, and I was pleased with the team and the demeanor.”
Miles wasn’t exactly sure what his team’s demeanor would be. The Huskers wore black shirts with the words “Hate will never win” in response to the presence of a white nationalist student on campus.
The commotion over that student’s release of a video embracing violence affected the Huskers at Minnesota last Tuesday, Miles said, and led to a slow start in practice Friday after a press conference to reveal their response.
“I felt a lot better after practice,” Miles said. “About the midway point of practice, I was worried.
“You expend a lot of emotional energy on a week like that. I told the guys to stay off social media. You can’t read everything that’s out there, so just relax and get ready for an afternoon game.”
Roby praised the coaching staff for helping the players separate the work that needed to be done on and off the court.
“We had a lot of stuff to think about off the court,” he said. “Once we got on the court, it’s all basketball.”
Nebraska’s leading scorer was its usual leading scorer — guard James Palmer, who had 15. Four players reached double figures. The Huskers held Rutgers to 34.8 percent shooting, including 2 of 14 (14.3 percent) on 3-pointers.
NU shot 45.5 percent overall, but hit 3 of 15 3s (20 percent). Miles said that’s why sturdy defense remains a critical part of Nebraska’s postseason surge.
“Defense has to be our calling card,” he said. “We just don’t score enough at ease enough — especially from the 2-point area, and we’re a little touch-and-go from 3, too — so we have to be great defensively.”