With Northwestern men’s basketball up by double digits late against Nebraska, you would’ve been forgiven if you felt that victory was too early to be counting on.
And you would’ve also been right. A 12-point lead with under four minutes to go withered to a 3-point margin in the game’s final seconds, and it seemed destined that the ’Cats would lose another close game.
But when the Huskers’ Cam Burke attempted to tie the game late with his team’s fourth 3-pointer in three minutes, graduate transfer Pat Spencer got a crucial hand on it to force the shot short and allow Miller Kopp to gather the rebound. Kopp then made two critical free throws to seal the game for the Wildcats.
Led by red-hot first-half shooting, Northwestern (6-9, 1-4 B1G) defeated Nebraska (7-9, 2-3 B1G) 62-57 to secure their first Big Ten Conference win of the season and snap a five-game losing streak. Kopp led all scorers with 15 points, while Spencer put up 14 points and 8 rebounds. First-year Robbie Beran recorded his first career double-double with 10 points and rebounds each.
“I’m really proud of the players,” said head coach Chris Collins after the win. “I actually feel we’ve been playing some pretty good basketball the last few games, and we just haven’t been rewarded because we play in a tough league against really good teams.”
The Wildcats’ first-half success was fueled by a rare impressive showing on offense. After struggling to score in the game’s early minutes, Northwestern made 10 of 14 consecutive shots to burst out to an early lead.
A Northwestern team that had been averaging just 25.5 first-half points against conference opponents exploded for 42 against the Cornhuskers. And despite shooting three-pointers at a miserable .310 clip all season, the ’Cats went 8-for-14 from beyond the arc in the first half.
Spencer led Northwestern’s scorers at halftime with 12 points, while also getting all eight of his rebounds for the game. While the team wasn’t free of error—they had seven turnovers in the first half, and Spencer was responsible for four of them—they entered the break up 15 points over Nebraska. At one point, the Huskers had gone six minutes without making a field goal.
While Northwestern shot well throughout the court in the first half, they fell apart in the second. The Wildcats made just eight of their 30 total shots, and went 2-for-15 from three-point range. Though Nebraska wasn’t shooting well for most of the second half, they began cutting away at the lead late in the game with a barrage of three-pointers.
The Wildcats weren’t doing itself any favors to stop the Huskers’ momentum. Miller Kopp missed three 3-pointers in a minute and a half, giving Nebraska opportunities on the other end of the court. And Ryan Young (2 pts, 3 reb), Kopp, and Spencer all missed the front end of their one-and-one free throws to turn a potential six points into zero.
Though the game devolved late into classic Cardiac ’Cats conduct, the team ultimately salvaged a much-needed win to keep them relevant in the midst of a wild Big Ten season. It was also a moment of relief for a team that has undergone much change since the end of fall quarter.
Starter Anthony Gaines, a junior leader known for being a key defensive piece for the Wildcats, was ruled out for the rest of the season due to injury and has since undergone surgery. First-year Boo Buie, who over the break exploded for 26 and 25 points against Michigan State and DePaul, respectively, has been injured since the start of 2020 conference play but is hopeful to return this season.
While several players contributed in big ways for Northwestern, including Spencer, Kopp, and AJ Turner (who hit three 3-pointers coming off the bench), perhaps the biggest story was fledgling starter Beran. The highly-touted recruit had several great moments during the game, including landing two 3s in the first half, and showing off his versatility in the second by taking a Nebraska charge right after scoring a layup.
“I just want to throw myself into it,” said Beran about his attitude during the game. “Whatever it took to make winning plays, throw my body on the line, I just wanted to do whatever it took to win.”
“Seeing guys like Robbie [Beran], even Jared [Jones] and Boo [Buie], … they’ve grown immensely through the season so far,” said sophomore Kopp about the first-year players. “It’s just awesome for me to see because I see how hard they work in practice every day, and it pays off.”
Cam Mack had 11 points on 4-for-13 shooting for Nebraska, and added 10 rebounds and 7 assists. The Huskers’ leading scorer, Haanif Cheatham, contributed 10 points, while Kevin Cross hit three 3-pointers to finish with nine points. Burke, whose potential game-tying shot Spencer tipped in the match-up's waning moments, had seven first-half points.
Northwestern will next play Iowa at home on Tuesday evening.
Game stats and details collected from StatBroadcast