LINCOLN, Neb. – A few early mistakes on defense set the stage for a near perfect game on offense for Shavon Shields.
Shields scored a career-high 33 points, making all 15 of his free throws for Nebraska's best performance at the line in 32 years, and the Cornhuskers defeated Illinois 67-58 on Wednesday night.
"They scored like five or eight points on me, and Coach was on me," Shields said. "I needed to make up for it. So I just attacked and got to the rim and hit a couple 3s and a couple free throws, and that kind of got me going."
The Huskers (13-10, 5-6 Big Ten) won for the fifth time in seven games and moved into a tie for sixth place in the conference. They also matched last season's win total with seven regular-season games to play.
"It's big," Shields said. "We just need to keep staying together, keep protecting the home court and start getting big wins on the road."
The Huskers ran their record to 11-1 at Pinnacle Bank Arena. But it's their 1-7 record on the road heading into Sunday's game at ninth-ranked Michigan State that is keeping second-year coach Tim Miles on an even keel about the progress his team has made.
"The one thing I've learned about this league — my house, your house, the playground — every night is just a scrum, a battle," Miles said. "Don't take anything for granted. I heard Penn State beat Indiana tonight after being down by 16. That surprised me a great deal. So you just never know. Who knows what we can do at Michigan State? Who knows what somebody could do to us here? You have to come in with the right mind frame, have good practices and keep getting better."
Terran Petteway added 16 points for Nebraska, and the Huskers held Illinois to two field goals over the last 6:57.
Shields bettered his previous high of 29 points against Penn State last season. He made 8 of 12 shots from the field, and his 15-for-15 night at the line was the best for Nebraska since Jack Moore made all 15 of his against Oklahoma State in 1982. The Huskers were 24 of 27 from the line, 14 of 17 in the second half.
"Shavon was remarkable tonight," Miles said. "He started out slow, he got beat on a couple defensive errors. He came in and looked me square in the eye and said, 'Coach, I'm ready. It won't happen again.' Well, he was ready. He was right. He was just on the attack."
Rayvonte Rice scored 23 points and Nnanna Egwu had 12 rebounds for Illinois (14-11, 3-9), which has lost nine of its last 10. The Illini shot 37 percent and committed 14 turnovers.
"We made way too many mistakes tonight," Illini coach John Groce said. "Shields had a tremendous game. You hate to give a guy a 30-point game. He made those plays, but 15 of them were free throws. We can't foul him that much. He took advantage of it, so give him credit."
The Huskers got a scare when Shields hobbled to bench with 7:46 left with a tweaked knee. He went to the locker room for treatment and came back less than a minute later.
"I didn't like that. I did not like that," Miles said. "I live in fear, worry and doubt. I'm a coach. It's what we do. So, yes. Worried."
Right after checking back in Shields went strong to the basket, got fouled and completed a three-point play for a 55-49 Nebraska lead.
"He wasn't quite the same afterward," Miles said, "but he still made a couple plays for us."
Nebraska missed four of its first five shots of the second half, then scored 10 straight points to go up 44-40. It was the last of 11 lead changes in the game.
Shields converted a three-point play and finished the run with a smooth move in the lane, taking a step toward Jon Ekey and then fading back for a one-handed jumper from the free-throw line.
Rice made the play of the game when he stole a pass from Petteway and drove the length of the floor, taking the ball around his back before going under the hoop for a left-handed layup with 8:19 left. The Illini couldn't build off the razzle dazzle, though. Walter Pitchford answered on the other end with a 3-pointer to start a game-clinching 13-3 run.