LINCOLN — It’s a good thing for Nebraska that Isaiah Roby’s injured finger felt better Saturday night.
That meant he could play in the season opener against Eastern Illinois.
And if the 6-foot-8 sophomore from Dixon, Illinois, hadn’t played, the Huskers might not have won.
NU trailed more than it led against its Ohio Valley opponent, missed 16 free throws and had an icy field-goal shooting stretch in each half, but persevered for a 72-68 victory in front of 11,104 starting-
to-wonder fans at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Roby’s three-point play with 4:23 left gave Nebraska the lead for good at 59-57. His sparkling night included 11 points, 13 rebounds, six blocked shots and a steal in 26 minutes off the bench.
Roby called it his best college performance. It was his first double-
double, and the six blocks were the most by a Husker since 2005.
“That’s what Coach (Tim) Miles recruited me to do,” Roby said, referring to his bountiful stat line. “That’s what I did in high school, so it’s good to see it translate to college. That’s my first game like that so far.”
Point guard Glynn Watson also emerged down the stretch.
The 6-foot junior made back-to-back floaters with 2:14 and 1:30 left to push Nebraska’s lead to 64-59. Then in the final 23 seconds, he drilled 5 of 6 free throws — all needed because Eastern Illinois closed within two points twice at the end.
“I didn’t think Glynn had a great night,” Miles said, noting his 6 of 14 shooting. “Then you look at the stat line and the kid has 21 points and three assists. I think we’ll get better out of him.”
Getting the best out of Roby, however, saved Nebraska from another potential “buy-game” embarrassment.
He came off the bench in the first half with the Huskers trailing 17-14, and immediately converted a three-point play. Then on Eastern Illinois’ next four possessions, Roby snared a missed shot, blocked a shot, forced a turnover and blocked another shot.
Nebraska squeezed out a 34-33 halftime lead because Roby, in 13 minutes, produced seven points, five rebounds and five blocks.
“I told him at the end of the first half, ‘Robes, baby, you saved our bacon,’ “ Miles said. “I think we had two rebounds as a team before he got in the game. Roby is a guy we definitely need, and he can fill up a stat sheet.”
Eastern Illinois wasn’t your usual directional-school “buy-game” opponent.
The pesky Panthers, already with a 13-point exhibition upset of Illinois, relied on a veteran lineup of quick, in-between-sized players to force mismatches and scramble plays.
EIU, which led 17 ½ minutes of the game, was up 54-48 as the clock ticked inside eight minutes.
“You need to credit Eastern Illinois for being a really competitive, tough-minded team that played with poise and physicality,” Miles said. “That was some junkyard dogs out there.”
Nebraska finally bit into its six-point deficit when freshman guard Thomas Allen swished a 3-pointer and Watson followed with another with 5:52 left to tie the game. Eastern’s last lead came on two free throws with 4:46 left before Roby erased it with a layup and a foul off an assist from James Palmer.
Palmer, the scoring star in NU’s exhibitions and scrimmages, was held to 12 points on 4 of 14 shooting and 3 of 7 free throws. The team’s 59 percent free-throw rate (23 of 39) drew a roll of eyes from Roby, Watson and guard Evan Taylor afterward.
“There will be a little practice tomorrow,” Roby said.
“It’s the PBA effect,” Taylor said. (The Huskers don’t practice regularly at the city arena.) “But we’re going to make them.”
Taylor, who had 12 points, four rebounds and two steals, said there is no apologizing for winning a close game, regardless of the opponent.
“Especially the first game,” the senior captain said. “Credit them. That’s a really good team, really experienced. I’m proud of our team because we found a way to win. And it wasn’t easy.”
“We missed 16 foul shots and shot 38 percent and won,” he said. “That’s not going to happen often. And it better not.”
» Roby’s six blocks were the most by a Husker since Wes Wilkinson blocked six against Creighton in 2005.
» Backup center Duby Okeke played just three minutes, all in the first half. Coach Tim Miles said Okeke was on the floor for eight scoreless possessions, and decided to go mostly with a smaller lineup after that.
» Senior guard Anton Gill didn’t play. He took part in the early warm-up, but limped back to the locker room with continuing discomfort in his surgically repaired knee.
» Nebraska has a quick turnaround, hosting North Texas at 7 p.m. Monday.