Nebraska returned from the holiday break with fresh legs and used them to make life miserable for Iowa on Thursday night.
The Cornhuskers put forth their best defensive effort of the season, holding Iowa — No. 10 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency heading into the game according to KenPom — to a season-low 26% shooting in a 66-50 victory in front of a sold-out Pinnacle Bank Arena crowd.
“Coming from Christmas break, all week we’ve just been preaching on conference play, that’s the start of the season, basically, for us,” Juwan Gary said. “So it’s what we did all week, practiced hard for the three days we had. Defense was a mentality we had all week, so we just went out there and put in the game plan. The defensive effort was more from the coaching staff just pushing us every day, so it just came from all that.”
All five starters finished in double figures for Nebraska (8-6, 1-2 Big Ten) as the Huskers shot 40.7% from the field including 36.5% from 3 (8-of-22).
Gary led the way with 14 points on 6-off-11 shooting (2-of-5 from 3) and nine rebounds. C.J. Wilcher scored 13 points on 4-of-8 from the field (3-of-6 from 3) and 2-of-2 from the foul line and dished out three assists. Sam Griesel notched his second double-double with 12 points, 10 rebounds and five assists while shooting 2-of-3 from deep. Derrick Walker scored 10 points and grabbed eight rebounds in 21 minutes. Emmanuel Bandoumel chipped in 10 points, four rebounds and three assists.
Blaise Keita did not play as he continues to nurse an ankle injury suffered against Queens before the break. Wilhelm Breidenbach and Oleg Kojenets filled in for Keita as the back-up fives, combining for 10 rebounds in 15 minutes.
As a team, Nebraska corralled a season-high 54 rebounds, out-boarding the Hawkeyes by 14.
“That’s just pretty much what we do,” Breidenbach said. “That’s a part of the game that is completely dependent on us. The only person that can control that is us so, it’s just a product of playing hard.”
Iowa star forward Kris Murray made his return after missing the Hawkeyes’ previous four games with an injury, but his 17 points and eight rebounds weren’t enough to lift the Hawkeyes (8-5, 1-1) to victory.
Patrick McCaffery opened the scoring nearly two minutes in with a 3, but Nebraska responded with a 9-0 run including two buckets apiece from Walker and Griesel.
Iowa got back-to-back buckets from Murray and Flip Rebraca to pull within one, but the Hawkeyes didn’t score again for a long, long time.
The Huskers locked in on the defensive end, forcing 16 consecutive Iowa misses as Nebraska scored 20 straight points capped by back-to-back 3s from Wilcher and Griesel to take a 29-8 lead. The drought reached nearly nine minutes before Murray knocked down a 3 to get the Hawkeyes on the board again.
“Really proud of our guys for the effort that they came out of the game with,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said. “I thought the energy was exactly what we needed. This Iowa team gets off to fast starts, and we came out and I thought had great energy from the opening tip. That’s what you have to do to give yourselves a chance against this team and in this league.”
Murray’s 3 triggered a 16-4 Iowa run with Murray scoring 10 of the points himself, cutting Nebraska’s lead down to nine with less than two minutes to play in the half. The teams traded free throws before Gary closed out the half by banking in a 3-pointer to put Nebraska up 38-26 at the break.
“I thought we had sustained energy for 40 minutes,” Hoiberg said. “We took our foot off the gas a little bit in the first half, I think, when the lead got up to 20, and they made a run which we knew they would do with their shooting and the way they space the floor. But our guys kept their composure. It was good to see Juwan bank in that 3 going into the half to give us a double-digit lead, and the second half was the same. We came out with really good energy to push that lead back up.”
Griesel led the Huskers with 10 points in the first half as Nebraska shot 50% from the field including 6-of-9 from deep. Eight turnovers was the lone blemish on the box score.
Murray was the only Hawkeye with more than one bucket, scoring a game-high 13 points as Iowa shot 20.5% from the field and scored just four points in the paint.
Nebraska hit Iowa with a 7-0 run early in the second half (despite Walker picking up his third foul 44 seconds in) and continued to roll from there with a series of highlight-reel plays including poster dunks from Bandoumel and Gary and a transition alley-oop from Wilcher to Bandoumel.
The lead swelled to 20, then 22, then 24.
Nebraska finally slowed down, going scoreless for nearly seven minutes, but Iowa only scored six points during the drought as the Huskers continued to fly around on defense. Murray’s first bucket of the second half didn’t come until the 5:38 mark.
“He’s a great player and he’s a three-level scorer,” Hoiberg said about Murray. “The plan today was to keep Juwan on him as much as possible and sub in and out when he was coming in and out of the game. Then Denim gave a good stretch on him as well … Just a really tough cover that can score from all over the floor, but I thought we made him work for everything he got and that’s what you have to do when you’re defending a great player.”
Bandoumel finally ended the drought with a reverse layup after a series of moves off the dribble. Iowa scored the next five points to cut the deficit to 15, but that’s as close as the Hawkeyes got as Nebraska closed out their first Big Ten victory.
“The offense wasn’t real pretty as we were trying to milk the clock down and be patient with it, but we continued to get stops on the other end,” Hoiberg said. “That’s what this team is built on is a defensive identity. They’ve bought into it, and I could not be prouder how they went out and responded.”
Iowa shot 32.4% from the field and didn’t hit a 3 until the final seconds with the game already decided. Rebraca scored 14 of his 16 in the second half but the rest of the Hawkeyes combined for just 10 points on 4-for-26 shooting.
Gary had a big second half with nine pound and seven rebounds while Bandoumel scored eight to crack double figures. The Huskers didn’t shoot any better than the Hawkeyes at 32.3%, but they hit two 3s and were plus-four at the foul line.
Up next for Nebraska is a road trip as the Huskers will visit Michigan State on Tuesday before heading to Minnesota next Saturday.