The crowd inside Pinnacle Bank Arena on Tuesday night told the story.
A smattering of boos here. Some groans there.
While Gretna was beating Omaha Westside for the Class A state football championship not too far away at Memorial Stadium, the Tennessee State Tigers were busy drilling 13 of their 33 3-point attempts and putting a good scare into Fred Hoiberg and Nebraska.
But Husker guard Alonzo Verge Jr. made sure there wasn’t an upset. The 6-foot-3 Arizona State transfer was a playmaker and recorded the second double-double of his Nebraska career with 18 points and a career-high 10 assists to help lead Nebraska to a 79-73 win.
The boos and groans turned into cheers by the end of the night.
“I thought Alonzo played his best game,” Hoiberg said. “He did a phenomenal job attacking, getting into the paint, picking and choosing when to shoot. But his playmaking was exactly where we needed it tonight.”
Verge said he was able to play well because he still felt momentum from the win over Southern on Sunday, where he had 14 points, six boards and four assists. He was in the right headspace Tuesday night, too.
“I think it was just my mind was free,” Verge said. “Using the momentum from last game and just playing relaxed, that’s when I play my best, when I’m just relaxed and having fun. That was the case today.”
It wasn’t pretty, but the Huskers have now won three straight games, something that hasn’t happened since the 2019–20 season. Next up for Nebraska is a home game against South Dakota, which beat the same Tennessee State team by 17 last Sunday.
Derrick Walker Jr. was the recipient of many Verge assists in pick-and-roll actions. The 6-foot-9 big finished with a career-high 16 points (on a perfect 7-of-7 shooting) and six rebounds. The connection between Verge and Walker—two players on the roster who have been around and played a lot of college basketball—was easy to see.
“Alonzo and Derrick have really developed a good chemistry, and that started back in the preseason,” Hoiberg said. “So with them (Tennessee State) staying home, that opened up the paint for Alonzo and Derrick in the pick-and-roll, the two-man game.”
Another key factor in the Huskers’ win was the free-throw shooting under pressure from Bryce McGowens, who finished with 18 points, six rebounds and four assists. The 6-foot-7 true freshman went 6-of-7 from the line, all of which came in the second half.
While Nebraska held a better overall shooting percentage (53%) from the field than Tennessee State (41%), the Tigers’ outside shot was falling and the Huskers’ wasn’t. Tennessee State hit 39% of its 3s while Nebraska shot just 24% (6-of-25).
Some of the 3s that fell could be chalked up to the Tigers simply hitting tough looks. But other times, there were defensive breakdowns from the Huskers’ perimeter defense.
“I thought in the first half, it was as simple as not staying in front of the ball,” Hoiberg said of the defensive lapses. “When they got into the paint, it forced us into rotation and they obviously got really hot on us and didn’t need a lot of room to get those shots going. So I really challenged them at halftime to get in a stance and stay in front of the ball.”
At halftime Hoiberg said his team changed up its pick-and-roll coverage, trying to get the Tennessee State ball handlers going to their right wherever they were on the floor. The Tigers went 10-of-19 from 3 in the first half, but 3-of-14 in the second.
“We had better awareness I thought, but they hit some tough ones. A lot of that was because they were confident,” Hoiberg said. “But overall, we found a way to win a game where things weren’t going our way, and that’s growth for a group and certainly something we can build on.”
C.J. Wilcher was able to come off the bench and make an impact, too. The 6-foot-5 transfer from Xavier matched his season high of 15 points and went 3-of-7 from 3-point range. His layup with 12:50 left in the game cut Nebraska’s deficit to 52-51, then he hit his second 3 of the contest shortly after to give the Huskers a 56-54 lead.
When Tennessee State had an answer, Wilcher was there again. He drilled his third and final 3 with 8:44 left to put Nebraska on top 61-56. Hoiberg said Wilcher has been a rock for the team.
“He’s obviously one of our best shooters and he’s very confident,” Hoiberg said. “The one he hit in the left corner where he had a little jab was a huge shot. I think Alonzo found him over there in that left corner, so he was to find him.”
Nebraska’s game against South Dakota (4-1) on Saturday is slated for 1 p.m. Like the Huskers, the Coyotes are riding a three-game wins streak.