While many Illini fans were hoping to breeze through this one, the Illini got more than they wanted for much of the game. The Cornhuskers brought gritty defense that made life difficult for the Illini, and their offensive attack maintained periodic spurts of energy that prevented Illinois from building a lead. That strong perimeter defense, paired with sustained interior defensive effort from Nebraska big man Derrick Walker, kept the contest competitive and exciting throughout.
The Illini got punched in the mouth, but their response down the stretch revealed the grit, character and depth of this group, powered by the steady leadership of super senior guard Trent Frazier. Let’s dive deeper into this closer-than-expected contest.
As many games are, there were offensive runs on both sides with Nebraska having strong points in the beginning and end of the first half and stayed close with the Illini throughout the second. The Corn Huskers started an uncharacteristic 4-of-4 from the three-point arc including two quick ones from point guard Keisei Tominaga.
They put a consistent attack together by giving Walker touches inside to force Illini center Kofi Cockburn to really defend, while applying pressure from the perimeter with driving attacks from Bryce McGowens (19 points, 6 rebounds). While fellow guard Alonzo Verge Jr. faced dogged defense from Frazier all night, he still found opportunities for others while cashing in a few opportunities of his own, finishing with 14 points and 9 assists.
Their strong man defense, where they took away passing lanes and forced tough drives and shots, kept them in the game, as they held the Illini’s perimeter shooting in check and did enough to contain Cockburn’s presence inside.
Fortunately for the Illini, their steeled nerves and determination came through down the stretch. Once Cockburn went to the bench with his fourth foul that really sealed this game for them — a testament to Omar Payne’s impactful relief minutes. Cockburn still made his presence felt (16 points, 13 rebounds) but he really tired down thanks to the paint touches that Nebraska employed on offense and the strong interior effort from Walker. The quick fouls he picked up in the final minutes made things tense for Illini fans.
Even worse, the typically sharp shooting Alfonso Plummer looked off all night, finishing just 1-of-5 from three and 9 points. Thankfully, Frazier was in attack mode all night, reviving shades of his early freshman days, with frequent dribble penetration and pull-ups from mid-range and three, finishing with a stellar 29 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 steals. That veteran presence, complemented by fellow super senior Da’Monte Williams, who hit a critical three to help spur that 7-0 run that sealed the game, gave this team another gear in critical moments, all the more important with the continued absence of point guard Andre Curbelo.
Equally important were the hustle plays from Coleman Hawkins and Payne, with the former securing 4 offense rebounds and 2 tip-in points that helped reverse momentum and the latter getting a huge block on Nebraska guard Bryce McGowens in the late stages and providing a steady interior presence in both halves.
Only time will tell how much longer this protracted absence for Curbelo will be. The Illini could sorely use his ballhandling and playmaking ability to help sustain and create offense amidst the tough on-ball defense that teams use to slow them down.
However, the Illinois’ ability to come together and make winning plays in critical moments (hustle plays, making extra passes, hitting key shots), combined with sustained strength on the glass (15 offensive rebounds vs. just 6 for Nebraska, 42 rebounds overall vs. 31 for Nebraska) have proved to be a winning formula that travels in the Big Ten. It’ll be really exciting to see this team if they’re able to get back to full strength once it starts playing teams in the upper half of the league standings.