Nebraska is just 11-12 and 2-8 in the Big Ten conference this season. Still, if there’s one sentence that I’ve said in about every article since New Year’s, it’s that “winning on the road in the Big Ten isn’t easy”. The Buckeyes nearly fell into that trap with cold shooting and a lazy closeout as the Huskers got as close as five with just under three minutes remaining, but Lenzelle Smith Jr’s surprise 21 points proved to be enough to survive a 39% shooting clip in a 63-56 win in Lincoln.
The biggest knock against Nebraska is that lack of a takeover, star power player that demands the ball and overwhelming defensive attention, and that came in to play late. But, they’re a scrappy bunch, one that has hung with other good Big Ten teams. In a stretch of four straight games, they lost to Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, and Wisconsin by only a combined 40 points. They too held those opponents into the mid-sixties in points (except Wisconsin, who scored just 47, probably by their own doing more than Nebraska’s).
Deshaun Thomas really picked a good one to struggle in, because if it’s any other opponent in the conference but Penn State, the Buckeyes would have probably dropped this one. He was just 6-of-18 shooting and 0-for-6 to start over the first 12 minutes of the game. The Huskers used a 14-2 run to take a 16-14 lead a little past midway through the first half. Thomas did finish with 15 points and 5 boards, scoring enough when they needed it.
Meanwhile, Lenzelle Smith Jr. failed to miss a shot. The junior shooting guard connected on all six shots, including three threes. In the never-ending search for a consistent second scorer, Smith doesn’t have the most skill, but he may have the best opportunity to do so given his starter status and three-point prowess. In addition, you can’t overlook what Amir Williams brought to the table in this one either. Amir had 7 points, 8 rebounds, 3 blocks, and 2 steals for the game, which is just a phenomenal stat line given what the team is asking him to do. That included converting all seven of his points at the foul line in eight attempts. That’s right, the coin flip that is Amir Williams at the foul line converted on 7-of-8 free throws! Eight rebounds is enormous too, because we’ve seen games where Williams will play 20 minutes and only record a board or two. Aaron Craft also turned in a solid offensive performance with 14 points, 6 rebounds, and 6 assists despite the 4-for-12 shooting. To sum it up, the supporting cast was huge in this one to aid what Thomas brought last night.
The Buckeyes completed a streak last night of over 60 straight minutes without allowing the opponent a single foul shot. Add the entire Wisconsin game to the first half of this game, and that is one of the most startling statistics that I’ve ever seen. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes wore a path to the line and converted five and-ones in this game, making 23-of-28 free throws.The Huskers used a 13-5 run to close the gap to just five with 2:43 to play as the Buckeyes did not record a made field goal over the final four minutes and had to squeeze their points out at the foul line. The Buckeyes held Nebraska to 37% shooting and made Dylan Talley (14 shots, 12 points) and Ray Gallegos (14 shots, 11 points) work for their points, but it was the 30 points in the paint and 14 second chance points for Nebraska that kept them within an arm’s length of OSU the entire night.
Next up, the Buckeyes have an absolutely grueling week ahead of them. First, it’s a trip to Ann Arbor and the outgoing #1 Michigan Wolverines on Tuesday night, who were defeated in Bloomington last night by the likely to be #1 again Hoosiers. Guess what? They get the Hoosiers this week too at home on Sunday afternoon. If the Buckeyes want to grab a piece (I’m TOTALLY expecting a two or three way split) of the Big Ten regular season title, they’ll probably need to at least match their 7-2 record from the front on the back of the Big Ten slate. That means at least a split this week is so crucial, preventing having to run the table in the last seven conference games to keep that pace. Ohio State slowed Michigan’s offense and pace in Columbus, but that will be a much tougher task in Ann Arbor. They’ll rely heavily on Aaron Craft slowing Trey Burke once again to disrupt the team’s rhythm.
(Photo: Nati Harnik/AP)