With one more taste of dessert before digging into the meat of its pre-Christmas schedule, the Nebraska men’s basketball team finished off Thanksgiving weekend with a 73-49 rout of Western Illinois at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
After trailing 9-4 in the opening minutes, the Huskers (5-1) closed the first half by outscoring the Leathernecks 36-8 in front of a holiday weekend crowd of 9,372, and cruised to the finish from there.
Bigger tests await, starting Monday at Clemson followed by a pair of Big Ten games against Illinois and Minnesota, and the annual matchup with Creighton.
But after an embarrassing loss Tuesday to Texas Tech in the championship of the Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City, Missouri, the Huskers once again took care of business against an overmatched foe.
"It was very important because you can't just come out and play down to your opponent and things like that," senior guard Glynn Watson said. "I think we started off slow, but we got it going and got a big lead.
"But Monday's going to be a big game. I don't know if they're still going to be ranked 16th, but it's still a big game for us, on the road. We've got to come ready."
Western Illinois had scoring droughts of 8:43 and 6:37 while going 3 for its last 20 from the field to end the first half, and ended the game with its lowest point total of the season.
Meanwhile, Nebraska made 12 of its last 15 shots in the first 20 minutes, all but one coming in the paint.
With one of the nation’s best shot blockers in 7-foot senior Brandon Gilbeck, Western Illinois’ defense is designed to run opponents off the three-point line and funnel them toward the reigning Summit League defensive player of the year.
But Gilbeck picked up his second foul and went to the bench with 14 minutes still to play in the first half, and Nebraska started living at the rim.
Nebraska coach Tim Miles said NU's coaching staff put an emphasis on moving the ball offensively in the days following the 70-52 loss to Texas Tech.
"And when we did that tonight I thought we were pretty good. … In the first half we were 12-for-19 from the field after three passes. And that's good basketball," Miles explained. "Now, we didn't continue it in the second half when we got the big lead, and that's where we can't let our guard down. Because whether you have a big lead or you're behind like we were against Texas Tech, if those same habits come out — quick, early outside shots — it makes it really hard on your defense."
Watson and James Palmer, after rough nights offensively against Texas Tech, combined for 39 points Saturday.
Watson paced Nebraska with a game-high 20 points on 8-for-10 shooting, and tied a career-high with nine rebounds to go with three assists and three steals.
Palmer, who scored 10 straight points for Nebraska in one stretch, had 12 points in the last 10 minutes of the opening period. His pace fell off in the second half as he finished 7-of-18 from the field and 0-for-5 from three-point range, but he added four rebounds and two blocked shots.
"My shot wasn't falling last game, but I'm going to stay aggressive and keep playing my game," Watson said. "Coach Miles is going to put me in a good position to score, so I was just being aggressive."
Isaiah Roby added nine points and seven boards, while Isaac Copeland finished with seven points and four rebounds while battling foul trouble.
C.J. Duff led Western Illinois (2-4) with 13 points. He was the only Leatherneck in double figures.