MINNEAPOLIS — Amir Coffey was the last one off the raised court Wednesday night.
He headed from the gray hardwood to the Minnesota locker room when the cheers grew louder. He slowed to high-five Gopher fans bundled in jackets and beanies. He posed for a quick picture while he got a standing ovation.
And the junior deserved it. He was pretty much unguardable, shooting 8 of 16 from the floor with 32 points, the most by anyone this year against Nebraska.
“He kept attacking,” Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said. “He was terrific.”
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Nebraska lost its first Big Ten game of the season for a lot of reasons. A stagnant offense, a few untimely fouls, the pressure of playing on the road. But Coffey was the biggest factor. By far.
Nebraska had been excellent at keeping the opposition’s top players in check. Clemson’s Marcquise Reed scored 15 against NU, well below his average. Illinois’ Trent Frazier had nine Sunday.
But Coffey torched Nebraska, inside and out, and the Husker defense was unable to consistently get stops for the first time this year.
“He’s a big guard, athletic, uses both hands, so we just gotta watch film,” NU senior Isaac Copeland said. “He didn’t really kill us last year at all so I mean obviously he’s been working, but it’s nothing we can’t handle.”
Tim Miles’ team leans heavily on defense. They guard, and that’s what keeps them in most games even if the offense goes through some lulls. With a 7-1 start — its best since 2003 — Nebraska entered Wednesday atop most of the Big Ten’s defensive statistical categories — notably blocks, steals, field goal percentage and 3-point defense.
But none of that showed up in crunch time against the Gophers.
The headline of the loss was the 13-point lead the Huskers blew. But they kept Minnesota at a safe distance until midway through the second half. After an Isaiah Roby free throw, Nebraska led by 10 with 8:43 left.
The Huskers were outscored 27-10 from there.
Before Wednesday, Nebraska held teams below 40 percent shooting from the floor. But Minnesota shot 61 percent in the final 8:43. Though Nebraska is not big inside, it’s generally been OK keeping teams out of the lane. But Minnesota scored eight of its final 10 field goals in the paint. The other two were 3-pointers.
And it was Coffey who led that charge in the final nine minutes. He scored 12 of his 32 points and dished out four assists in that span.
“He kind of single-handedly kept Minnesota hanging around,” Miles said. “Every time I felt like we were ready to stretch even a bigger lead, he made some plays.”
But it wasn’t just Coffey. Minnesota shot 51.8 percent, the first team to shoot above 50 percent against Nebraska in 35 games.
And the challenge for the Husker defense doesn’t get any easier. Up next is Creighton, one of the best offenses in the country.
The Bluejays are No. 1 in effective field goal percentage. They shoot 45.8 percent from 3-point range and 57.6 percent from 2. They’re fast. They’re efficient.
And Nebraska’s defense will have to turn it around fast.
Glynn Watson told the team in the locker room they need to get over this loss quickly.
“We gotta move on,” Watson said. “We got a big game Saturday. Can’t let this turn into two losses.”