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Northwestern's shooting display leaves shorthanded Huskers frustrated after 78-63 loss

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Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg discussed the impact of Emmanuel Bandoumel's season-ending injury on Tuesday, and previewed the Huskers' game vs. Northwestern.

Clack. Pause. Clack. Pause. Clack.

After Nebraska basketball’s 78-63 loss to Northwestern, that was the sound of Emmanuel Bandoumel’s crutches as he came out of the Goldenrod Room, a hospitality suite across the hall from a frustration-filled press conference at Pinnacle Bank Arena.

Minutes earlier, guard Sam Griesel, then coach Fred Hoiberg recounted a Wednesday night that felt like the beginning of the Huskers’ stark new reality without Bandoumel, who tore his ACL last week. Nebraska’s buoyant, vocal, defensive-minded leader wasn’t on the floor Wednesday night, and it showed.

The Wildcats scored on 51% of their possessions. They hit 11 of their first 20 three-pointers, scored 16 second-chance points and ran up a 23-point lead before the effects of two games in 48 hours hit them.

“Defense is a lot of mental stuff, I guess,” Griesel said. “And we didn’t come out with the right mindset tonight. We lacked the energy we needed to be able to fly around and talk like our defense should look like.”

Worse, Hoiberg said, Northwestern beat Nebraska to loose balls, played the aggressor and dictated the physical tenor of the game, denying the Huskers’ two best players — Derrick Walker and Griesel — their usual scoring spots in the post.

For a Nebraska team built on toughness, it can’t happen. Without Bandoumel, it did.

“We had a guy dive out of bounds and nobody went over and helped him up — that bothers me when those types of things happen,” Hoiberg said. “We have to be the harder-playing team when we step on the floor with where we are right now. Our margin’s too thin.”

Even when Husker guard Keisei Tominaga goes for 22, freshman Jamarques Lawrence scores a career-high 12, and Nebraska hits nine three-pointers. Even when, for a half, Nebraska holds Northwestern guard Chase Audige scoreless. The Huskers’ margin is the width of a razor — especially if the Wildcats’ third-best guard, Ty Berry, has a career night.

Which, he did. Berry scored 26 points — 21 in the first half — as his rhythm jumpers splashed into nets and Northwestern, which recently had an eight-day COVID pause, turned 13,205 fans at PBA into a low, dispirited hum. Wildcat stars Audige and Boo Buie — seniors who each average 15 points per game — were swarmed early. Berry was often left alone, with defensive closeouts being a millisecond too late when Nebraska was in man-to-man defense.

So the Huskers tried a little 1-3-1 zone, and Berry promptly made another three. Nebraska then employed a little run-and-jump trap — installed this week with Bandoumel’s injury — that triggered a 9-0 run but came too little, too late.

The first full game minus Bandoumel revealed gaps in Nebraska’s defense that weren’t previously there. The Huskers (10-11 overall and 3-7 in the Big Ten) were already missing Juwan Gary, who’s out for the year with a shoulder injury.

“They’re big losses, there’s no question,” said Northwestern coach Chris Collins, acknowledging the Husker team he’d seen on tape was different than the one on the PBA floor.

The absence of that edge was evident when the game flipped on a 21-5 Northwestern run over the final eight minutes of the first half. Early on, the Huskers had offensive fireworks.

Tominaga, one of Nebraska’s top threats at the rim, scored Nebraska’s first 12 points on two swooping layups, a mid-range jumper, a free throw and a corner three that came after an elongated fake. Tominaga had such a hot hand that he briefly considered a 32-footer — drawing gasps from the Pinnacle Bank Arena crowd — before pausing, putting his hand up like a stop sign, and flipping to Dawson, who splashed a three for Nebraska’s first lead, 25-22, at the 8:01 mark.

PBA erupted. Then Berry, with a lightning-quick release, shut off the noise.

In the span of 36 seconds, Berry hit back-to-back threes — one off of an offensive rebound, the other off a turnover. The shots were six of his 21 first-half points — a career-high for Berry in just 20 minutes.

“I thought they were playing HORSE out there, Tominaga and Berry,” Collins said.

As Nebraska’s depleted roster tired got near halftime, Northwestern’s lead ballooned to 13. Six Wildcat offensive rebounds turned into a remarkable 14 second-chance points, and, with Buie’s three just before the break, Northwestern had hit eight 3s in the first half.

The Wildcats (14-5 and 5-3) opened the second half with an easy Audige layup at the rim. That started, over seven minutes, a 15-7 run that eventually forced a Hoiberg timeout with 13:07 left. Audige finished with 15. Buie had 17.

Aside from Tominaga, Lawrence scored a career-high 12 points. Sam Griesel (eight points) and Derrick Walker (seven) had difficult nights, combining for nine turnovers. Hoiberg’s son, Sam, had six points and six rebounds in his most meaningful action of the season; the younger Hoiberg was part of a reserve group that had the elder Hoiberg wondering whether the ragtag collection should have stayed on the floor longer while the stars sat.

Hoiberg has the freedom to consider it. Penn State made 11 threes. Northwestern did, too. Cumulatively, Nebraska led those games for fewer minutes than it takes to make a country omelet.

Maryland, which beat Wisconsin on Wednesday night, awaits on Saturday. That’s another team Nebraska hasn’t beaten in the Hoiberg era, and the Terrapins, the coach said, play a defense the Huskers haven’t seen before.

Nebraska did too, in a sense. Its leader clacks on crutches. Its future could include rotations with three freshmen, including Fred’s walk-on son.

“We’ve got to find a way to get our identity back — somehow, some way — without some really key players on the floor,” Hoiberg said. “I am confident we’ll bounce back.”

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