In the end, Nebraska just ran out of gas.
Ray Gallegos led Nebraska with a game-high 23 points against Illinois.
Playing all five of its starters more than 34 minutes, the Huskers couldn't keep pace with Illinois late, dropping a 72-65 decision to the Illini despite leading with less than six minutes remaining.
“It is disappointing,” Nebraska head coach Tim Miles said on his postgame radio show. “We're not interested in coming close. We didn't guard as well as we needed to down the stretch, I thought they drove the ball on us … players make plays in this league. Good players are going to jump up and stick one in your eye. We missed some easy shots early in the half.”
Nebraska missed a number of layups early in the second half that might have given the game a different tenor. For the second straight year, Nebraska (13-16, 4-12 Big Ten) faltered late in Assembly Hall and allowed Illinois (21-9, 8-8 Big Ten) to escape with the win.
The Huskers were led by a game-high 23 points from Ray Gallegos, while senior forward Dylan Talley also added 20 points, five rebounds and five assists. Illinois had five players reach double figures, led by Tracy Abrams with 16 points.
The teams exchanged blows for most of the game, but Nebraska hung steady, holding a 57-55 lead with just more than six minutes left in the game. Nebraska dictated the pace and shot the ball well, finishing 45.5 percent from the floor and weathering Illinois' 35-26 rebounding advantage.
But Nebraska's short bench and Illinois' athleticism began to take over late in the game as the Illini guards began getting into the paint and either kicking out to teammates for open shots or getting to the rim. After holding that lead, Nebraska fell prey to a 7-0 Illinois run. Overall, the game featured 10 ties and 13 lead changes.
The loss leaves Nebraska with razor-thin postseason hopes with a home game against Minnesota on Wednesday and a road game at Iowa remaining on its regular season schedule.
Miles said the blowout against Wisconsin and the close call against Illinois show the team that they have to be ready to go.
“What it shows is that your mentality matters and how you prepare every night out,” Miles said. “It's a grind because Wisconsin can blow you out of the water, and they did in a hurry, and then you watch the Wisconsin game, it's close and then it's out of hand. If you don't have that resiliency and that ability to battle over and over and over.”