LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska hasn’t lost a season opener in 17 years, but only just barely.
The Husker men’s basketball trailed against Eastern Illinois by six points with nine minutes left in the second half but came back to win 72-68 on Saturday at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Eastern Illinois coach Jay Spoonhour said the Panthers just didn’t make the shots it needed at the finish.
"When you go on the road, you've got to make those against a good team, because it's just really hard to get opportunities,” Spoonhour said. “Because you talk about good coaches now, I mean, there's some good coaches over there, and they're a really, really tough defensive team to play against...it's just hard to make passes because they're just very big.”
So now Nebraska has won its first game of the season 17 straight times, dating to 2001, although this was the closest opener in Tim Miles’ six years as coach.
This streak had to survive Nebraska missing 16 free throws, giving up several rebounds you would have expected the Huskers to pull in against a smaller team, and several stretches where the Huskers went a few minutes without scoring.
“I’m glad we found a way to win despite some mistakes,” Miles said. “We made some mistakes tonight. We didn’t shoot foul shots well; we got a little selfish with the ball.”
The Huskers played better in the second half, Miles said, but they had to if they were going to win.
“It was a good win,” Miles said. “I’m never going to apologize for a win, but I think you have to also commend Eastern Illinois for being a really tough, competitive, tough-minded team.”
Junior guard Glynn Watson Jr. scored a game-high 21 points for the Huskers, and also three assists. Watson was just 6-of-14 from the field but made two big jump shots in the final 2 ½ minutes of the game.
And most importantly, he made the free throws that other Huskers hadn’t. Watson made all four of his in the final 11 seconds to close out the win, after Eastern Illinois kept getting layups and fouling. Watson finished 8-of-10 on free throws.
“He was the only guy out there where I was going, 'OK, he’ll make both of these,'” Miles said.
When the game was close at the finish, Watson said he was trying to get inside and draw contact.
“I was trying to get fouled, to be honest,” Watson said. “They were in the bonus and they told us to attack. My shot wasn’t falling, so I was just trying to get to the rim and draw fouls and try to make my free throws.”
EIU couldn't get those same shots to fall late. EIU shot only 39.7 percent (25-of-63) in the game. Terrell Lewis led EIU with 13 points, Jajuan Starks had 12 points and Montell Goodwin scored 10 points.
"It's hard to get the ball under the basket in a college game," Spoonhour said. "When you get in there, you have to finish it. But it's easy for me to say that. They are big guys and they blocked nine shots. They can move you and are big and heavy. It's not as easy to make your layups."
Evan Taylor and James Palmer Jr. each added 12 points for the Huskers.
Sophomore forward Isaiah Roby came off the bench but was all over the place, scoring 11 points and getting 13 rebounds. He also blocked six shots, the most by a Husker since Wes Wilkinson had six against Creighton in 2005.
Nebraska took the lead for good after Roby drove to the basket and scored for a 58-57 lead with 4:26 left.
“That’s what coach Miles recruited me to do,” said Roby of his first career double-double. “That’s what I did in high school, so it’s good to see it translate in college. That’s my first game like that so far. So hopefully I can keep on doing that.”
Spoonhour said he saw growth out of his team in the season-opener.
"The thing I am happy about, we are learning and we got the ball to where we need it," Spoonhour said. "We were smart about where we threw it and what we did. Some individual guys have to clean things up, but I am happy. It was looking bad for a while, then guys made their shots. No way you can prepare for what (Nebraska does)."
Nebraska had several stretches of the game where it went without scoring. The Huskers shot 38 percent from the field and 59 percent on free throws (23 for 39).
Eastern Illinois took its largest lead, 54-48, on a three-pointer by Goodwin with nine minutes left in the game.
Thomas Allen and Watson made back-to-back three-pointers for the Huskers right after that to tie the game.
Allen, the freshman guard from Raleigh, North Carolina, was 2-for-3 on threes for all of his six points, coming 16 minutes of play.
“I believe in Thomas until the end of time,” Miles said “He had another (three-pointer) in the first half that was good. He just missed his shots inside. I remember taking him out late, and he kind of had this 'I don’t want to come out' look, and I just love that. Tom has great poise. He’s not afraid of the moment, and I think we could see that tonight.”
Journal Gazette & Times-Courier reporter Justin Rust contributed to this story.