LINCOLN, Neb. — The folks in the Cornhusker State appreciate a good, hard-nosed effort. That’s why they’ve shown up in droves for Nebraska football games for decades. So when Nebraska forced a desperation shot that resulted in an airball and a shot-clock violation with 5:51 left in a 67-58 win against Illinois at the sparkling new Pinnacle Bank Arena, the 14,421 in attendance gave their team a standing ovation.
Tom Osborne’s Black Shirts these are not, but when it came time for key defensive stops Wednesday, Tim Miles’ club answered the bell in moving its record to 11-1 at the $180 million arena. Nebraska limited Illinois to 33.3 percent shooting in the second half and without a field goal for 5 minutes, 57 seconds down the stretch in what turned out to be Illinois’ ninth loss in the last 10 games.
“I really appreciated our guys’ effort, attitude and spirit. That was in the right place,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “At the end of the day, we’ve got to make a few plays. We’ve got to catch balls and pass better. We’ve got to make layups.”
Illinois’ struggles on Wednesday, though, weren’t just limited to the offensive end of the floor.
With Valentine’s Day approaching on Friday, a halftime video featured Nebraska players delivering their best pick-up lines. Shavon Shields’ contribution: “How much does a polar bear weigh? Enough to break the ice.”
He broke Illinois’ back on Wednesday, scoring a career-best 33 points, including 19 in the second half against the Illini (14-11, 3-9 Big Ten).
“Aggressiveness and my teammates finding me ... I owe it all to them,” Shields said while highlights of his performance were playing on the television to his right during the postgame news conference.
The Cornhuskers also got 16 points from Terran Petteway.
Shields tied a Nebraska record for the most makes from the free throw line in a single game without a miss, going 15 for 15 from the stripe.
“We had a hard time guarding the dribble; that’s one of the reasons we fouled,” Groce said. “(Shields) took advantage, so give him credit.”
After combining for 30 points in Sunday’s win at Penn State in the first starts of their careers, freshmen Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill combined to total 17 Wednesday. Junior Rayvonte Rice carried the offensive load against the Huskers (13-10, 5-6), scoring 23 points to go along with six rebounds and three steals.
“I’m trying to teach our basketball team, the freshmen in particular, how you win and why you get beat,” Groce said.
Rice was the lone player to reach double figures for Illinois, which turned the ball over 14 times leading to 19 Nebraska points.
“Fourteen turnovers is too many in a low-possession game like tonight,” Groce said.
Nnanna Egwu tied a career high by pulling down 12 rebounds, while Joseph Bertrand (five points, 12 minutes) had the shortest outing in his last 80 games.
“He played really hard, he competed,” Groce said of Egwu. “He’s great defensively. Really rebounded tonight. I thought he was active.”