ROSEMONT, Ill. — Tuesday night at Northwestern was the kind of men’s basketball game Nebraska has become known for losing.
In a forgettable first half, the Huskers had only one more field goal (8) than turnovers (7), gave up 14 offensive rebounds and saw Northwestern double them in assists as Nebraska fell behind by five points.
The normal result in that circumstance has been a second-half cave-in.
There was one, but this time it was Nebraska shoveling dirt on preseason Top 25 Northwestern 70-55 in front of 5,443 fans — including scattered pockets of noisy followers in red — at Allstate Arena.
So what’s the difference? It’s what NU coach Tim Miles has touted since the summer.
“It’s our maturity and talent,” he said. “We’ve just got more guys who can make plays. I’m proud of our guys, especially with their defensive effort and their ability to hang in there until we finally got an offensive rhythm the last 20 possessions or so.”
With 8:06 to play, Nebraska led Northwestern 43-42. From there, the Huskers outscored the hosts 27-13.
“We didn’t finish the game,” Wildcats coach Chris Collins said, “and Nebraska did.”
Nebraska’s biggest playmaker Tuesday was the guy who has struggled the most the past five games.
Junior point guard Glynn Watson exploded for 19 points, six rebounds, six assists and two steals playing in front of friends and family in his hometown. A meeting earlier this week got Watson’s attention after he was held to two points by Delaware State and one point by Stetson.
“Coach Miles wanted me to be more aggressive,” Watson said. “My team looks at me to be one of the top scorers and leaders on the court. That’s what I tried to do.
“It was just on me not being focused. I need to take on the challenge when we’re playing smaller teams. I can’t just play (hard) against bigger teams.”
Grabbing a Big Ten road victory this early in January produced smiles outside the locker room of Nebraska (11-5, 2-1).
“It was big,” Watson said. “Coach Miles was telling us this could come down to the end, for NCAA things. It was big to get this one.”
Yet the postgame revelry was hardly out of hand.
“We were a little happy, but this is what we expect,” Watson said. “We want to come out on top, and we beat a good team.”
Nebraska benefited from the absence of preseason All-Big Ten point guard Bryant McIntosh from Northwestern’s lineup. The senior, who averages 13.3 points and 5.5 assists, missed the game with a knee sprain suffered Saturday.
“We understand how much Bryant means to Northwestern,” Miles said. “He’s such an all-around player and floor general. They miss him dearly.
“At the same time, our guys defensively were excellent.”
Miles called Watson “a one-man show” in the first half, which he was. He scored 11 of the Huskers’ 25 points and had half of their baskets.
Early in the second half, the Huskers turned up the defensive pressure, forcing Northwestern to miss 10 of its first 12 shots. That gave Nebraska time to get rolling offensively, with big plays eventually coming from multiple sources.
During a 10-1 run that put the Huskers up 41-36, Watson twice found hustling backup center Tanner Borchardt with passes for layups. Guard James Palmer, NU’s leading scorer but held to three points in the first half, had two baskets in that burst and finished with 18 points.
“James fell down twice in the first half,” Miles said. “Then he had three dunks in the second half.”
Guard Anton Gill led the second offensive outburst of the second half.
With the Huskers leading 43-42, he splashed a 3-pointer, drew a foul and completed the four-point play. Including that play, Nebraska scored on 11 of its final 12 possessions, with forward Isaac Copeland adding a three-point play on a putback, a dunk and a short jumper as part of his 13 points, eight rebounds and six blocks.
“Palmer and Copeland hadn’t done much earlier,” Collins said. “But the last eight minutes they made a lot of plays.”
Meanwhile, the sterling defense continued.
Nebraska held Northwestern (10-6, 1-2) to 26.9-percent shooting in the second half and 29.2 percent overall. The Huskers blocked 14 shots — a record in a conference game — including nine in the second half.
Northwestern center Dererk Pardon, who has posted his two best games as a collegian against NU, went for 17 points and 15 rebounds. But it took him 18 shots, of which he made just six.
Borchardt deserves credit for his strong work inside after Jordy Tshimanga got in foul trouble. Borchardt had four points, two rebounds, two blocks and an assist with no turnovers in 12 minutes.
Even though Nebraska played a sluggish first half, Miles said, he didn’t have to cajole his players to get after it the final 20 minutes.
“We were 0 for 5 in transition, 4 for 13 at the rim and like 0 for something on 2s,” he said. “We were 4 of 20-something on close-range shots. So we just talked about manning up a little bit and playing with some force and power.”
Consider that message received by the Huskers, and sent to the rest of the Big Ten.