Nebraska showed off all kinds of advantages over Wisconsin during Tuesday night’s Big Ten tilt at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
And yet the Huskers needed a major advantage at the free-throw line to eventually dispatch the Badgers 63-59 in front of 13,497.
NU has depth, experience, length and talent and, though Tim Miles' squad is by no means a surefire outfit, it looks like a team built to last the winter and push for postseason work.
The Badgers, outside of junior center Ethan Happ, lack all of the same characteristics displayed by NU and look like a team destined to miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time in nearly two decades.
The team statistical totals looked similar across the board except for one striking difference: NU hit 21 of 28 shots at the free-throw line, while the Badgers made just 4 of 10.
“That’s what we wanted to do in the second half since they’re a slow-paced team,” said junior guard James Palmer, who scored a team-best 18 points. “We wanted to do something since it wasn’t a high-paced game, get to the free-throw line and we did a good job of that.”
Palmer led the charge in that department, making 8-of-9 at the stripe. He’s now shot a team-best 112 free throws on the season.
“He adds a dimension with his ability to put the ball on the floor,” Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard said. “He’s shot a lot of free throws, he shot nine tonight, and by 50-some I think he’s led them this year. A wing that can attack and you have to go play on the perimeter, but he’s handful when he gets going downhill on those lane lines and the hand-off and the ball-screen.
“He does a good job of taking advantage of what his skill set is and making the most of it.”
Isaac Copeland added 12 for NU, while sophomore center Jordy Tshimanga chipped in with nine despite early foul trouble.
UW threw a pair of pesky counterpunches in the second half.
The first, NU fended off from the seated position.
Sophomore wing Isaiah Roby pulled down a rebound, pushed up the right side and found Anton Gill for a wing three-pointer that hit the back rim as Roby fell down. The ball, though, bounced right to Roby on the floor. He pitched it back to Gill, who entered the game shooting 46 percent from three-point range and did not miss his second attempt at ending a 6-0 Badgers run and extending NU’s lead to 46-38 with 8:40 remaining.
The second UW run came from Happ, who scored 11 straight down the stretch to keep the visitors within striking distance. They couldn’t get over the hump, though, because NU took care of business from the stripe.
“They did a great job of getting Happ top-down, getting out of the swing, going away from the swing and making us adjust again,” Miles said. “(Gard) did a really good job managing the game.”
The Huskers first gained major separation early in the second half when they held the Badgers without a point for 4:52 and mounted a 13-2 run that turned a two-point edge into a 41-28 lead with 13:55 remaining. The last six of that run came on back-to-back three-point plays from Copeland and Palmer.
The Huskers looked comfortable offensively for most of the first half. When Tshimanga slammed home a dunk with 5:28 remaining before halftime, NU had an 8-0 run, a 24-14 lead and was shooting 10-of-19 overall from the floor.
Defensively, they effectively double-teamed Happ for the most part and held the Badgers scoreless for seven straight possessions while methodically extending the lead.
Then turnovers sapped any momentum the Huskers had built.
Five of them, to be exact, over the final 4:50. The fourth was a bad inbound pass that Happ collected in the open floor, rumbling for a dunk that pulled the Badgers back within 24-21 with 2:02 remaining in the half. Then Glynn Watson was called for a charge on NU’s final possession of the half, the second of the night drawn by UW freshman point guard Brad Davison (15 points).
“This is a tough team to extend on and we made some bad decisions,” Miles said, outlining the end of the first half. “There’s three possession you puke on yourself and you look down and the score is two.”
The Huskers’ only points over the final 5:28 came on a short Roby jumper over UW redshirt freshman forward Aleem Ford, though the hosts still took a four-point lead to the locker room.
It was more of the same in the second half — steadily pull away only to find UW creeping back. In the end, though, the Huskers led for 38:27.
“We know that our margin for error is extremely thin,” Gard said.
Said Miles, “That’s the way it’s going to be against Wisconsin right now. It’s going to be a rock fight. It doesn’t surprise me.”