CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — With Illinois starting point guard Sam Maniscalco out with a foot injury and D.J. Richardson all but unable to shoot with a hurt wrist, Nebraska figured it could put two or even three players on the Illini's best remaining threat, center Meyers Leonard.
The strategy kept Leonard quiet Saturday but created an opening for Joseph Bertrand.
The sophomore guard scored a career- and game-high 25 points to save Illinois (13-3, 3-1 Big Ten) in a 59-54 comeback victory over the Cornhuskers (8-7, 0-4).
In a sloppy game that that included 34 turnovers — 20 by the Cornhuskers — Bertrand went 11 for 12 and hit the game-winning shot with less than a minute to play on a smooth floater after gliding through the Cornhuskers and into the lane. Making just his third career start, Bertrand talked as if he'd made that play under pressure a thousand times.
"Oh, yeah, I've been doing it for so long, it's just part of my game," he said.
Added teammate Brandon Paul, "The kid's a player, you know?"
The loss left Nebraska still looking for its first-ever win in the Big Ten. After losses to Top 25 conference opponents Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin, the Cornhuskers were visibly frustrated to let one get away against a team they led at halftime and could have beaten.
"It's very frustrating — we're 0-4, guys," coach Doc Sadler told reporters. "Everybody's talking about our schedule. It doesn't matter. You're still frustrated."
The Cornhuskers were tied 54-54 and had the ball with 1:21 to play.
But Toney McCray turned the ball over, setting up Bertrand, who hit his short floater and gave Illinois a 56-54 lead.
The Cornhuskers had a chance at the other end, but Bo Spencer settled for a long jumper on the run that missed.
Paul came up with the ball and, on the break, drew an intentional foul going to the basket. As Sadler argued the call, the junior hit two free throws to put the game all but out of reach at 58-54 with 21 seconds to play.
After the game, Sadler was coy in his criticism of the call.
"I've learned in this league you better say they made a correct call," he said. "It's a 50-50 call, and they obviously made the correct call, in their opinion."
The foul, Illini coach Bruce Weber said, was as big as Bertrand's late shot.
"You get the call, and now their spirits are pretty much broken," he said.
Paul finished with 11 points.
Spencer led Nebraska with 13 points. McCray added 12, and Brandon Richardson scored 10.
Both teams were sloppy. Nebraska finished with 20 turnovers, and Illinois had 14.
"I thought both teams played hard, but what an ugly game," Sadler said.
One big difference, Weber said, was that Illinois cleaned up its turnover problem in the second half. Both teams had a dozen in the first 20 minutes, but Illinois had just two in the second half.
Each team entered the game expecting to be severely limited by injuries.
Maniscalco is battling an ankle problem that cost him most of last season, and he might be out for Illinois' game against Ohio State on Tuesday, Weber said. Richardson hurt his wrist in practice and was limited to two points on just four shots in 21 minutes.
For Nebraska, neither center Jorge Brian Diaz nor guard Dylan Talley was expected to play, but both came off the bench.
Talley had six points in 28 minutes. Diaz had nine points and three rebounds in 22 and played a key role in limiting Leonard.
The Cornhuskers' decision to focus on the sophomore center limited him seven points and four rebounds in 24 foul-plagued minutes. Leonard had been averaging 13.3 points and 8.3 rebounds.
"We did (limit him), but you give up something when you do that," Sadler said.
Nebraska's 25-22 halftime lead capped a particularly ugly first half that left the crowd grumbling.
Nebraska didn't score in the game's first 4-plus minutes, giving Illinois a chance to race ahead, but the Illini muffed the opportunity. Illinois put up just five points in those first 4 minutes.
Once the Cornhuskers got on the board, they built a little momentum, going on an 11-0 run. Richardson's reverse layup with 10:20 to play made it 13-7.
Diaz had missed five straight games but drove Nebraska's run with five points.
But he limped to the bench with 5:29 left in the half, and Illinois clawed back.
Paul and Tracy Abrams hit back-to-back 3-pointers for the Illini, the second by Abrams with 4:07 left in the half giving the Illini a 22-18 edge.
But just as quickly as Illinois seemed to catch fire, the Illini went cold.
The Huskers rattled off seven straight points, the last three on fast-break jump shot by Spencer with 1:05 to play that gave Nebraska its halftime lead.
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