MINNEAPOLIS — After eight days off, a quick 7-0 deficit was all it took for Nebraska to wake up. From there, the Huskers played the kind of basketball that has made them a surprise team in the Big Ten.
Sophomore Isaiah Roby led a balanced attack with a career-high 21 points and eight rebounds as Nebraska defeated Minnesota 91-85 on Tuesday night.
James Palmer Jr. had 19 points and nine assists for the Huskers (18-8, 9-4 Big Ten), who won for the sixth time in seven games. Anton Gill scored 12 points, while Glynn Watson Jr. and Isaac Copeland each scored 10 for Nebraska.
Nate Mason poured in a career-high 34 points and added six assists for the Golden Gophers (14-12, 3-10), who have lost six in a row. Jordan Murphy scored 22 points and grabbed 13 rebounds, while freshman Isaiah Washington scored 10 points and dished out eight assists.
Nebraska hadn’t played since beating Wisconsin on Jan. 29, and it showed early. Minnesota jumped out to a 7-0 lead on its first three possessions on a 3-pointer by Mason and buckets by Murphy. Huskers coach Tim Miles immediately called a timeout after Murphy’s second basket to steady the ship.
“There’s a certain kind of competitive fire that you lose being off for over a week,” Miles said. “‘Listen, you’re getting punched. They are taking this game to you and we’re a little bit casual about it.’ We just came out and got in a little rhythm and played better from there.”
Over the next five minutes, Roby, Watson and Copeland each scored five points as the Huskers stormed to a 15-12 lead. They didn’t trail the rest of the game.
“We practice situations like that,” said Roby. “As a team, (we) just had some guys that were calming us down.”
The 6-foot-8 forward was 8 for 10 from the floor and also blocked five shots while battling Murphy, Minnesota’s “walking double-double,” according to Miles. Roby was on the receiving end of four alley-oop passes he finished with dunks as he more than held his own on both ends of the floor.
“I just thought he was really good all night,” Miles said. “We found him a lot around the rim and he made some tough finishes. We needed every bit of that Isaiah Roby tonight.”
Nebraska ranks 13th out of 14 Big Ten teams in shooting percentage, but the Huskers came out firing. They hit nine of their first 15 shots from the floor, including 5 for 7 on 3-pointers, as they pulled out to a 23-18 lead.
That was all without a point from Palmer, who had averaged 25.2 points over his last six games. But he ran off seven straight points before Gill hit a transition layup and a 3 to push Nebraska’s lead to 37-22.
Washington hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to cut Nebraska’s halftime lead to 44-37. The Huskers shot 59 percent from the floor and hit 8 of 12 from 3-point range in the first half.
Mason almost single-handedly willed the Gophers back into the game in the second half. Trailing by eight, the senior guard hit three free throws, and after a Thomas Allen 3-pointer, Mason made a driving layup, dished to Bakary Konate for a dunk, and drained a 3 to cut Nebraska’s lead to 60-59 with 10 minutes to play.
“Nate’s playing like a senior who doesn’t want it to end,” Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said.
Minnesota tied the game 62-all on a 3-point play by Michael Hurt, but Nebraska immediately answered with an 8-0 run to restore its cushion. Gill hit a pair of free throws during that run after Pitino was assessed a technical foul for arguing with the officials.
“We know every road game is going to be tough, so when they make a run, you’ve just got to be able to take their punch but punch back, and I think that’s what we did,” Huskers guard Evan Taylor said.
Mason hit a pair of 3-pointers in the final minute to pull Minnesota to within four, and after a steal Washington had a chance to cut the deficit to one point but his 3-pointer was long. Palmer then hit four straight free throws to close it out.
Minnesota was already missing two starters in center Reggie Lynch (suspension) and forward Amir Coffey (shoulder). Things took a turn for the worse when starting guard Dupree McBrayer, who has been battling leg injuries all season, didn’t play in the second half.
“They’re fighting. They’re giving us everything they’ve got. It’s a difficult situation with all of these injuries,” said Pitino, who noted that McBrayer was “hobbling” in the first half and decided to keep him on the bench the rest of the way.
Washington took advantage of the opening and played 31 minutes, matching his season high with eight assists.
Nebraska: Since joining the Big Ten in 2011-12, the Huskers have one fourth-place finish and a combined .289 winning percentage in their other five seasons. This year’s club now stands alone in fourth place, and its five remaining opponents are a combined 21-40.
Minnesota: Coming off an overtime loss at No. 24 Michigan on Saturday, the Gophers again showed heart but were outgunned by a deeper, more athletic team.
Nebraska: Hosts Rutgers on Saturday.
Minnesota: Visits Indiana on Friday.