Man, I really hope Nebraska keeps playing meaningful basketball in March, because this game was tons of fun. In one of their best performances of the season, Nebraska pulled out a signature victory, putting them at 19-11, as they look forward to the NCAA Tournament. Wisconsin now stands at 25-6.
For casual basketball fans, you wouldn't expect an electric atmosphere from perennial doormat Nebraska. But early in the game, the home Nebraska crowd was going wild. The Huskers certainly fed off their energy, and jumped out to an early lead. After a Wisconsin turnover, Terran Petteway took the ball in transition, spotted up, and drilled a 3 to make it 10-3 Huskers. At this point, the crowd kerploded. I mean, just look at Bo Pelini in the crowd after that shot:
Bo is so ebullient, he can barely contain himself.
With a home atmosphere like that, one can't fault Wisconsin for starting out slow. This is the biggest game in Nebraska basketball history in almost 20 years, so it makes sense that the Badges got a little flustered. But they found their groove on the backs of Nigel Hayes and solid ball movement. Hayes found the occasional mismatch, and took advantage of it. He got matched up against Shavon Shields on the low block, backed him down, and drew a foul (but missed the foul shot - a theme). But Hayes also played surprisingly well on the outside, and made an uncharacteristically athletic drive for a layup. It's imperative that he starts strong and wears out the defense, because there's few players better at drawing fouls and tiring out opponents than Hayes.
Wisconsin's ball movement in the first half was delightful, but two examples stick out to me the most. With about 12 minutes remaining, Traevon Jackson found himself double-teamed on the far side of the court, down near the low block. Normally, that type of defensive pressure would force a turnover. But Jackson turned around and whipped a cross-court pass to a wide-open Ben Brust in the opposite corner, and Brust buried the three. That possession perfectly displays Jackson's development as a decision-maker. And it's possessions like that that prove Wisconsin's offense won't fail them come mid-March.
The other example of Wisconsin's offense that stood out to me was Frank Kaminsky's drive and dish to Duje Dukan. Earlier in conference play, Kaminsky's drives were bad news bears. He would saunter into the lane and rarely make a smart decision. Defenses just had those moves figured out. But recently, Kaminsky's drives have been a major part of Wisconsin's offensive explosion and recent success. Kaminsky has shown that he can score, but his nice little pass to Dukan demonstrated that he can do more than just score on the drive. Ball movement like that will be huge for Wisconsin's ongoing success.
Nebraska, on the other hand, survived through the first half on drives by Shavon Shields. Their outside shots weren't falling, but Shields took it upon himself to make the offense work. He had 12 points in the first half, and they all came on tough drives to the lane. It's not that Wisconsin's defense was lackadaisical; Shields was just too strong. He was like that all through the beginning of the second half as well, and his jumper was falling. As expected, no one outside of Shields and Petteway carried the Huskers offensively. We knew that coming in, but I can't wait for Shields and Petteway to continue growing next year. Both are sophomores, and will be Nebrasketballian staples for the next few years.
Later in the second half, Wisconsin threw out a weird frontcourt of Duje Dukan and seldom-used freshman Vitto Brown. We know Vitto can sing, but he hasn't done much other than that so far this year.
Vitto Brown and "Shades of Brown" sing the National Anthem at the Kohl Center. (via Bucky's 5th Quarter)
Dukan played well, but Brown had some freshman moments. It's unlikely he finds the floor too much as the Badgers make a run in March. So don't worry about that.
With 7 minutes left, the Huskers exploded to take back control of this game. Gunner Ray Gallegos didn't shoot too much, but buried a big 3. Then, the Huskers forced a turnover, and Shields dunked in transition. At this point, the crowd got back into top form and Nebraska went on a 12-1 scoring run, forcing a Badger timeout.
Traevon Jackson and Nigel Hayes tried their darndest to bring the Badgers back. Twice in a row, Jackson drove smartly and found Hayes for easy layups around the rim. But they never totally pulled ahead. A Walter Pitchford three sent the crowd into a frenzy, and made the momentum shift strongly in Nebraska's favor.
Wisconsin didn't go down easy. Kaminsky knocked down a 3 with under two minutes left to pull the Badgers within 7. Hayes did steal an inbounds pass with 50 seconds left, and tried to pass it to Jackson, but Jackson had a toe on the line, so what could have been a huge shift wound up negligible. The Badgers' comebacks attempts fell short, and the Huskers pulled out the victory.
The students stormed the court, and boy did they deserve it. Nebraska has been one of the coolest stories in college basketball this year, and it seemed that they would not be denied. Shields ended with 26 points and Petteway ended with 26 points and 10 rebounds. This game won't harm the Badgers too badly - a strong performance in the Big Ten Tournament should keep them in the 2-seed range. And now, barring a collapse in the BTT, Nebraska looks like they're going to be dancing.
Good for them. Thanks for a great Big Ten regular season. Onto the tournament!