LINCOLN — It took 18 games, but Nebraska coach Tim Miles’ patience with struggling center Jordy Tshimanga finally paid off.
The 6-foot-11 sophomore, who was benched in Saturday’s second half, responded Tuesday night with a season-high nine points and six rebounds in 18 minutes, and helped defend Wisconsin star Ethan Happ in a 63-59 victory over the Badgers.
Tshimanga has started every game this season, but hasn’t played like a starter.
His highest point total before Tuesday was six. He was shooting 36.2 percent from the field and 50 percent on free throws.
But against Wisconsin he hit 3 of 5 field goals and 3 of 4 free throws while corralling two offensive and four defensive rebounds.
“If we don’t have Jordy, we might not win the game,” NU coach Tim Miles said. “I feel the same way about Thomas Allen (eight points in 15 minutes). He did a lot of smart things for us.
“So it was not the usual suspects. Some other guys came to save the day.”
Nebraska (12-6, 3-2) has matched its win total from last season — with at least 14 more games to play — and moved into a four-way tie for fourth place in the Big Ten.
Yet the level of play left the 13,497 fans at Pinnacle Bank Arena rubbing their eyes at times.
And from the facial expressions of the three Huskers who came to the interview room, you might have wondered who won.
“We had some struggles at the end,” said NU guard James Palmer, who had 18 points, five rebounds and two steals. “We’ve got to finish better than that. We’re always happy about the win, but you’ve got to finish better than that.”
Nebraska built a 10-point lead in the first half — a dunk from Tshimanga made it 24-14 — but saw the margin shrink to four at halftime 26-22.
The Huskers pushed the lead back up to 13 points early in the second half, and were still up nine with 3:18 left before a ragged ending allowed Wisconsin to close to 62-59 with two seconds left.
“We had the pace where we wanted it,” Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said. “Make it a grinder type game. We did that, but we’ve got to be able to put the ball in the basket.
“Our margin for error is extremely slim, and it shows at times.”
Miles said the game reminded him of tussles he used to have at other coaching stops against his current assistant Jim Molinari, who can muck up a game with the best.
“You feel like you need a shower afterward,” Miles said. “(Wisconsin does) a great job of making it difficult to score, you can’t extend a lead and any mistake they’re going to take advantage of.”
That’s why it took help from deeper in Nebraska’s playing rotation than usual.
Allen, a true freshman guard, hurt Wisconsin (9-9, 2-3) by turning down guarded 3-point shots and slashing to the basket for easier hoops, forcing the Badgers to realign their defense.
Tshimanga was integral to holding off UW in the second half with his defensive help on Happ, an All-America candidate. The 6-10 Happ finished with 19 points and 11 rebounds as the Badgers had success against Nebraska’s smaller lineup.
But it was tougher to score with the 268-pound Tshimanga leaning on the 235-pound Happ.
Why was Tshimanga markedly better all of a sudden?
“Like Coach probably told you guys, he just told me to stick with it,” Tshimanga said. “My teammates have been great with me and been patient. I’ve been getting in the gym and getting extra reps. Just working.”
Miles, like some of his players, was happy to win but unhappy with the path to get there.
“I don’t think our mentality was where it needed to be,” he said. “You can see that in assists (just eight on 20 baskets) and our poor shooting percentage from 3 (14.3 percent on 2 of 14).
“And then, some of the guys and their performances.”
In 28 minutes, starting guard Evan Taylor didn’t score until hitting 1 of 2 free throws with 0.9 seconds left in the game. In 27 minutes, starting point guard Glynn Watson didn’t score until making three free throws in the final 47 seconds. Together, they missed all seven field-goal tries and committed five turnovers.
But senior guard Anton Gill picked up his teammates with eight points, including Nebraska’s only two 3-pointers.
His second should make highlight reels across America.
With about nine minutes to play, Husker forward Isaiah Roby drove to the basket then passed to Gill in the corner. Roby fell on his rump after he collided with a Wisconsin defender as Gill fired a 3-pointer and missed.
With Roby still seated, the rebound landed in his lap. He passed to Gill again, who this time swished the 3 for a 46-38 lead.
Still, Miles said, “We need to tighten up.”