LINCOLN – The Michigan men’s basketball team ended its game against the Cornhuskers with the Nebraska crowd chanting the name of the Wolverine’s best player. They were mocking junior forward Moritz Wagner.
The normally brash star had no answer. He scored just two points all game. So, with the crowd openly making fun of him, Wagner could only smile and shake his head.
It was a particularly bad time for the junior to disappear, as the Cornhuskers ran away with the game, 72-52.
“I think you could see tonight why Nebraska is, what’s their record at home, one loss? 11-1, played Kansas really well,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “Playing small right now, that’s a really difficult challenge for people to play against right now. … We’re playing on really short rest. So credit Nebraska for a great game plan. They played much better than us, and they got a W.”
For the second game in a row, the Wolverines (5-3 Big Ten, 16-5 overall) needed a big second half. For the second game in a row, Beilein’s team was looking to avoid a momentum-damaging loss.
After an opening frame where Michigan could do nothing right against Nebraska (5-3, 14-7), it trailed, 32-21 at the break on Thursday.
And though it came back to beat Maryland on Monday night despite an equally terrible first half, this comeback effort fell apart quickly.
“We can’t just think we can turn it on and off,” said redshirt sophomore guard Charles Matthews. “Maryland got down and we made a run, Maryland came back really almost won that game. So we can’t just say that when we get down we’re automatically gonna win the game. We have to stay poised, we can’t put ourselves in these positions anymore.”
After the Wolverines cut the lead to eight with 17:26 left, Matthews collected a defensive rebound off a missed Cornhusker 3-pointer. Matthews turned, looked and threw the ball directly to Nebraska forward Isaiah Roby.
Roby drove in, euro-stepped around Matthews, and brought the lead back to double digits. Then Isaac Copeland made a turn-around jumper. Then Evan Taylor made a pull-up jumper. Then Anton Gill drilled a corner 3-pointer.
The rout was on, and Michigan was helpless.
“I don’t know what we were doing a few times,” Beilein said. “And then in the second half we get a rebound, we’re down eight and we throw it right to them. There’s some things we’ve really gotta grow in.
“If you go to Texas and win, if you go to Michigan State and win, if you go to Iowa and win, you don’t expect a crowd like this to bother you. It’s disappointing we didn’t play with efficiency in the first half, so we had like 14 points with five minutes to go. If you don’t play real smart, you’re not gonna score points.”
Nebraska’s defense stifled the Wolverines all game. They finished with 12 turnovers, shot just 38 percent from the field — 22 percent from deep — and struggled to get anything going in one-on-one matchups, an area where Beilein’s team can sometimes expose opponents.
The Cornhuskers were sterling on the offensive end as well. They looked to pound the ball inside in the first half, attacking Wagner on the post. It resulted in countless easy looks from forwards Roby and Copeland and was a contributing factor to the double-digit, halftime lead. In the second half, things opened up for Nebraska. It started hitting all its jumpers, leaving the Michigan defense guessing.
Even when a dunk from freshman guard Jordan Poole brought the lead back down to 12 with 9:08 left, the hope of a comeback was fleeting. The Cornhuskers hit two free throws and a 3-pointer just over a minute later to make it a 17-point gap again.
The slow starts are something the Wolverines have battled at times throughout the season. In most of those games, they’ve been able to overcome them. With Thursday’s loss, though, the trend becomes a bit more concerning.
“Concerned, I mean — yeah, if you want to say that,” Wagner said. “Concerned about our offensive performance in general, just the way we were careless today with the ball. We threw the ball away 12 times. Eight of them were unforced, something like that. … Sucks, but we’re going to figure it out.”
It just wasn’t the Wolverines’ day. Each time something good happened for them, momentum would almost immediately swing back to Nebraska. Wagner, himself had a thunderous dunk to open Michigan’s scoring in the second half. Soon after, Matthews’ turnover turned the tide once again.
Michigan’s efforts were ultimately swallowed up in a sea of red, chanting Wagner’s name long into the night.