LINCOLN, Neb. — Since Christmas, when the games became serious, Shavon Shields averaged 8.4 points in 11 Nebraska games.
Not particularly aggressive, the son of a Nebraska and NFL football great didn’t reach the free throw line in six of those games, missing his only two charities in the most recent defeat of Northwestern.
But to the immense pleasure of a packed house at the new Pinnacle Bank Arena, the 6-foot-7 sophomore went berserk Wednesday night. He drained 15 straight free throws in a career-high 33-point outburst that wore down John Groce’s Illini in a 67-58 result.
With all eyes on NBA prospect Terran Petteway, it was Shields who caught fire with a run of 12 points after Illinois shot ahead 12-4. It was Shields who broke open a close game (Huskers led 52-49 at 6:30) with another flood of points.
Illinois won the rebound battle 36-28 and attempted more shots, 49-43. But free throws were critical in this one, Nebraska bagging 24 of 27 while Illinois made 18 of 26.
Though a distant No. 65 in RPI (Illinois was No. 69), the Cornhuskers moved to 5-6 in Big Ten play and kept faint NCAA hopes alive. Indiana’s unexpected 66-65 loss to Penn State cast Illinois back into the league cellar.
Sudden thoughts ... breaking through the mist.
— Some draft and recruiting stories look pretty silly a few years later, the latest example being the Super Bowl. In 2012, Mel Kiper gave Seattle’s draft a C-minus, and Bleacher Report dissed QB Russell Wilson as part of an F rating. Put Michigan State’s Spartans in a similar football list.
— Regardless of the emotion and adrenaline flow of the moment, there is no insult sufficient for an athlete to shove a fan. But it’s understandable, under the circumstances — Marcus Smart was already frustrated — and the three-game suspension handed to Oklahoma State’s star is two games too many.
— If resources and population are so critical, how come New York, Chicago and Los Angeles are not setting the NBA on fire, and the only .700 teams represent Indianapolis, Miami, Oklahoma City, San Antonio and Portland?
— For all the talk about Illini competition at quarterback, UI coaches who watched Wes Lunt’s accurate throws on the scout team last fall will be surprised if Lunt isn’t the winner. Lunt fits perfectly into Bill Cubit’s precision system, and will provide a look far different from the last eight years of Juice Williams and Nathan Scheelhaase.
— Missouri’s athletes and administration clearly support linebacker Michael Sam, and the NFL franchises are rushing forward to make appropriate statements. But with all this media fuss over Sam “coming out,” what general manager wants to see this circus consume his clubhouse when Sam is drafted? Who’ll step forward?
— Stevenson junior guard Jalen Brunson scored 20 when Groce attended Friday, added 39 more Saturday, is ranked the premier 6-footer in the nation’s junior class, and is reportedly set to see the Illini play. So get ready for another burst of speculation similar to the Cliff Alexander firestorm because, after Quentin Snider slipped away, Groce is still searching for a playmaker.
Tate’s tidbits II
— Are the mock draft experts ready to shift gears? Their projected No. 1 pick, 7-foot Kansas freshman Joel Embiid, isn’t having the same impact as Anthony Davis (No. 1 pick from Kentucky in 2012). Bill Self cites knee and back problems in stating Embiid may require some time off after seven games in which the Cameroon rookie has averaged 10 points and eight rebounds, and had just six of each in Monday’s 85-82 loss to Bruce Weber’s Kansas State team.
— With his boundless energy, Ron Zook belongs in the game. But it’s no secret that his special teams floundered in coverage-and-return skills at Illinois, and that’s the same area he’ll be coaching at Green Bay.
— In analyzing Michigan State’s 60-58 loss at Wisconsin, it can be explained by Gary Harris’ 3-for-20 shooting. Harris was in full flight toward the Big Ten Player of the Year honors when he crashed in Madison.
— Abe Woodson, one of the greatest Illini running backs (1954-55-56) and a guy who enjoyed his frequent returns to campus, has died. For me, it’s been that kind of February, bleak and depressing, and taking good friends Tony Novak and Dean Stewart, and the youthful Sam Wells much too early. Add the national scene, where Philip Seymour Hoffman and Shirley Temple once came alive on our viewing screens, and our mortality is ever more real.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.