LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — James Palmer Jr. only made four field goals Sunday, but the Nebraska guard hit 12 of his 14 free throws to lead the Huskers to a 75-60 win over Illinois.
That’s exactly what Fighting Illini coach Brad Underwood didn’t want to see in the Big Ten conference opener for both teams.
“I thought we might try to set a Nebraska record and see how many free throws we’d let Palmer shoot tonight,” Underwood said. “It’s really funny, you spend a couple days and most of our talk was about not fouling. The one thing Palmer does is he puts a lot of fouls on people. We want him to shoot the ball. That was frustrating. But he’s an awfully good player. That showed today.”
Palmer finished with 23 points, Isaac Copeland scored 16 and Glynn Watson Jr. added 14 for Nebraska.
Nebraska (7-1) made 25 of its 30 free-throw attempts as an aggressive Illinois (2-6) defense committed 23 fouls, playing right into the Huskers’ hands, Palmer said.
“As a team we definitely wanted to get to the free-throw line; we knew they extended their defense and pressured,” he said. “We just wanted to get to the basket.”
Nebraska came out hot, hitting its first three field goals and all six of its free throws to go up 13-2 just 2½ minutes into the game.
Illinois trimmed its deficit to four points midway through the first half but Nebraska closed on a 10-2 run to take a 39-23 halftime lead.
The Illini cut the Husker lead to 10 early in the second half and came within nine three times in the final 17 minutes, the last time at 60-51 on Da’Monte Williams’ jumper with 6:26 left. But a 7-0 Nebraska flurry capped by a breakaway Isaiah Roby dunk put Nebraska up 70-53 with 3:40 left.
“It was really important with these guys, to get on top of them and then keep them at arm’s length,” said Nebraska coach Tim Miles. “That’s been hard for a lot of teams to do. Gonzaga hasn’t done it. Notre Dame didn’t do it. We were able to. I think getting to the foul line for us was important and the fact we made some 3s tonight helped too.” Nebraska hit 6 of 14 3-pointers Sunday .
Underwood agreed that the early lead — and Nebraska’s smothering defense — were critical to the outcome.
“That’s a veteran basketball team who jumped on us early,” Underwood said. “It was uphill from the get-go. We never really got anything established for long periods of time at either end
“Give Nebraska credit, they’re top five in every defensive category. They contest everything. When we don’t shoot the ball and turn it over as much as we did it’s going to be tough night for us.”
Giorgi Bezhanishvili led Illinois with 14 points. Kipper Nichols scored 12 and Ayu Dosunmu added 10 for the Illini.
Nebraska radio play-by-play announcer Kent Pavelka called his 1,000th Husker game Sunday.
“Kent Pavelka is an icon in my eyes,” Miles said. “First of all, not many people get to 1,000 games. He’s great with the call and he’s truly a homer, he is with us, he travels with us. He’s part of the team. I hope college athletics never loses that, that’s still a cool part of life, those radio calls. I’m really happy we got a W on his 1000th game.”
Nebraska: The Huskers have now won 16 straight home games. It’s their longest home winning streak since winning 16 in a row in 1981-82 and 1982-83 season. It was Nebraska’s 10th straight Big Ten home win, dating to the start of last season.
Illinois: The Fighting Illini entered the game ranked 18th in 3-pointers, making an average of 10.9 per game on 40 percent shooting. Illinois was 6 of 15 from 3-point range Sunday, shooting exactly 40 percent.