The Cornhuskers delivered 40 minutes of tough-minded drama in Wednesday night’s conference opener. They didn’t blink against Assembly Hall mystique and Indiana’s full-throttle approach.
The No. 16 Hoosiers (10-3) sure did, and lost 87-83.
The 26-game home winning streak is over. So is Cream ‘n Crimson momentum with a potent 1-2 schedule punch looming — No. 6 Louisville on Saturday, No. 14 Wisconsin on Tuesday.
“It’s going to be a short night for them,” coach Tom Crean said, “because we’ll be back getting it figured out and getting ready for what will be an incredible battle on Saturday.”
Added center Thomas Bryant: “All we can do is bounce back from it. Bring more to the table.
“One loss doesn’t define us. We’re going to keep building and get better.”
Nebraska (7-6) was more than ready for the Hoosiers thanks in part to the Big Ten’s toughest non-conference schedule. That included losses to three top-10 teams — No. 2 UCLA, No. 3 Kansas and No. 10 Creighton.
The 5-6 start could have broken the Cornhuskers.
Instead, it steeled them
“Our guys showed a tremendous amount of resolve,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said. “We showed the promise that I see in them. I hope it gives them confidence.”
Nebraska rocked from the opening tip. It hit three-pointers (9-for-18), buried clutch free throws (12-for-15 in the second half), and thrived under adversity. Guard Glyn Watson delivered 26 points and four assists. Guard Tai Webster had 21 points and four steals. Forward Ed Morrow had a double-double (12 points, 10 rebounds).
In the first half, the Cornhuskers surged to a 28-15 lead, hitting seven straight shots at one point.
In the second half, they surged again to turn a seven-point deficit into an eight-point lead.
And when IU had its own surge to regain the lead, Nebraska went into refuse-to-lose mode.
The Hoosier response — morphing into defensive submission, in part because the season-long turnover problem won’t go away. Their 19 turnovers led to 21 Cornhusker points.
“The thing you take from this is it’s going to be a war, a fist fight, all the way through, no matter who you play,” guard Rob Johnson said. “If you don’t come out of the gate right and get after teams, if you let them hit you first, it’s going to be tough.”
What else did we learn Wednesday night?
Let’s take a look:
1. Juwan Morgan update
The tears in Morgan’s eyes reflected a potential grim reality.
At the minimum, the sophomore forward’s second half shoulder injury cost him the final 10 minutes of the game.
At the maximum, well, Crean was optimistic.
“It seems to be a bruise. I think we were all fearful when that happened. He was in a lot of pain. I don’t remember him being in that kind of pain when his shoulder kept popping out last year.
“He’ll continue to get it evaluated. It didn’t appear to be overly serious. I can’t give you more than that.”
Mid-way through the second half, Morgan hit the floor from a hard foul by forward Jordy Tshimanga and instantly clutched his left shoulder, the same one that was surgically repaired last spring. Tshimanga was called for a technical foul, but not a flagrant one.
The crowd booed, but Crean later told Miles and Tshimanga not to worry about it, that it was a basketball play and not a dirty one.
Miles was less kind to his player.
“I feel bad for Jordy’s humongous mistake grabbing Juwan Morgan without the ball. That was a bad play. He made a mistake. He’s not a malicious kid, but that was a malicious play.
“I hope (Morgan) comes bck to health quickly. He’s a heck of a guy.”
After several minutes of attention from IU’s medical staff, Morgan got a hug from Crean and headed to the locker room.
The instant result — Indiana went on a 20-9 lead to take a three-point lead.
It didn’t last.
2. Missing Robert Johnson
The junior guard was a first-half force with 13 of his team-high 19 points. When he went out early in the second half with four points, IU was in big trouble.
“It really hurt us,” Crean said. “Playing without him, I got a good indication of how good he is and how much we miss him. He is a stabilizing force for us.”
Johnson returned with 5:55 left. A minute later, he stole a pass, then got free for a three-pointer to push the Hoosiers ahead 73-70.
It didn’t last.
3. Run the Show
Early on, IU point guard Josh Newkirk twice drove his was into turnovers, which was not part of the game plan. Crean briefly pulled him for some tough coaching. The general message — get your head in the game.
Newkirk kept penetrating at will, which was good, but consistently arrived into trouble. Still, Crean stayed with him, and Newkirk steadied himself.
With 6:37 left, he drove for a layup and a 68-68 tie. He finished with 11 points, two assists and three turnovers, not the ratio you want from a point guard.
4. What might have been
The back-and-forth thriller was ripe for a defining Hoosier play.
They had multiple opportunities to put Nebraska away.
Leading by three late, Bryant pushed a fast-break rather than getting the ball to a guard. Predictably, he turned it over and Nebraska scored.
Then, trailing by two, guard James Blackmon drove for a layup and missed with 23.8 seconds left. Bryant followed with a foul, a two-point deficit became four, a potential victory became a loss.
A predictable social media uproar followed, with some seeing doom, others finding hope from last year’s surprising Big Ten title run.
“I’m real comfortable with being in it like this,” Crean said. “I’m comfortable when you hit adversity. I’m good with that. We’ll figure out how to overcome it. We’ll find out who can learn the same thing.
“It’s one game.”