LINCOLN, Neb. — Fighting Illini men’s basketball coach Brad Underwood said last night’s game at Nebraska was one he’d been concerned about since the Big Ten conference schedule was published.
Illinois prevailed 81-71 Tuesday night in Lincoln, but it took some late heroics by their reserve center
“Maybe the coming out party for Omar Payne,” Underwood said. “I couldn’t be happier for a young man who’s worked so hard and stayed with it. Seven or eight-game stretch, maybe, where he didn’t score, but has kept grinding in practice.”
Payne played the final four minutes after Kofi Cockburn picked up his fourth personal foul. He defended the rim, hit a pair of free throws, and converted an alleyoop dunk to help the Illini turn a 65-65 tie into a ten-point victory.
Payne said he recognized the Huskers’ defensive strategy, and knew how to exploit it.
“They were fronting Kofi most of the time. Most teams ice him. Today they were hedging, so that kind of gave me a little opening down in the paint,” Payne said. “I feel like today we were a little shaky in the beginning. They (Nebraska) were kind of tough, but it was something that … I feel like it was more on our part.”
Trent Frazier led all scorers with 29 points, including the final seven. He assisted on the other two baskets in the final four-minute stretch. But he too pointed to Omar Payne as the difference.
“A huge shoutout to Omar coming in and stepping in for Kofi,” Frazier said. “Giving us some tremendous minutes, you know, blocked shots, catching the lob. He was unbelievable for us tonight.”
Cockburn finished the game with 16 points and 13 rebounds. Payne scored 8 points, including all four of his free throws, blocked four shots, and grabbed five rebounds. Jacob Grandison added a dozen points for the Illini.
Bryce McGowens led the Cornhuskers with 19 points. Alonzo Verge and Derrick Walker added 14 apiece. Walker led Nebraska with seven rebounds. Verge had a game-high nine assists.
Turnovers were low for both teams, with the Illini losing the ball just nine times, and the Huskers eleven. Illinois grabbed 42 rebounds to the hosts’ 31. Nebraska attempted only twelve three-pointers and made six of them. Illinois was were 7-19 from long range. and 12-19 from the free throw line. Nebraska was 11-14 from the line. For the game, the Huskers shot 46% from the floor and the Illini 47%.
Nebraska drops to 0-6 in the Big Ten, and 6-11 overall. Illinois is now 5-0 in the conference and 12-3 on the season. The Illini return to action Friday at home against Michigan. Tip time is 8:00pm, and the game will be televised on Fox Sports 1.
Rob McColley covers University of Illinois sports for WILL.