Cam Mack says he didn’t know.
When the sophomore point guard wrestled away a rebound from teammate Kevin Cross, and saved it from bouncing beyond the baseline boundary with just 41 seconds left on the clock, he says he didn’t know he was sitting on nine rebounds.
When he subbed out for the final time, to a hug from the oncoming Charlie Easley and an eruption of cheers from a PBA crowd that had been rocking all game and a dap from his head coach, Mack says he didn’t know he was going through a curtain call for the first triple-double in school history. This one deserved and allowed for a little premature celebration; Nebraska, a week after getting run off the court in front of a national TV audience, was 20 or so ticks of the clock away from a dominant 70-56 win over Purdue.
The point guard finished with 11 points on an uber-efficient 3-of-4 shooting from deep. He finished with 12 assists against just three turnovers. And he finished with those 10 rebounds.
“You watch him on film and he gets out of control,” Purdue head coach Matt Painter said of the young man who just last season was playing JUCO ball. “We needed him to get out of control, and he didn’t.”
“A lot of times you get those guys that are faster than hell, they’re not great decision-makers. I thought tonight he was great in his decision-making. And, as you kind of watch backward on tape, outside of maybe one game you can see the improvements he’s making in terms of his decision-making. He was the best player on the floor tonight.”
Mack has twice been benched this season. There was talk that he needed to tone down the flash, or at least find a healthy balance between playing with his special brand of flare while still valuing possessions. With two minutes to play, and Nebraska up nine, Mack grabbed a rebound and took off down the floor.
He had a one-on-one situation against someone who was either going to foul him or give him a bucket. A clear path to two points. Instead, he picked his head up and saw Dachon Burke coming flying down the pipe, not a soul in front of him. Mack slowed his fastbreak to almost a stroll. It drew the defender in and so he bounced a pass right into Burke’s hands.
A simple two became an easy two.
“You know you’ve got a really good point guard when they make tough plays look easy,” head coach Fred Hoiberg said. “That’s what Cam does.”
With 80 minutes of court time logged in the last 48 hours, Mack has 22 assists against just seven turnovers. He is the Huskers’ offensive engine right now. Hoiberg tried to steal some minutes with Charlie Easley as the point guard midway through Saturday’s affair, but with Jervay Green unavailable and Samari Curtis deciding to transfer, it’s Mack’s show to run.
He feels more in control now than he has at any other point this season. “For sure,” he says.
And Nebraska was entirely in control Saturday. The defensive intensity to open the game was something we hadn’t seen from this Nebraska group since… well Friday, but beyond that you’d be hard-pressed to find a better-executed game Nebraska had played before this weekend.
Hoiberg’s opening comments after the game were littered with praise for the way his group handled its business in the hours between touching down back home in Lincoln after Indiana and tipping off inside Pinnacle Bank Arena against what was a 6-3 Purdue team.
“I thought our energy and focus in our walkthrough this morning was as good as it’s been all year,” Hoiberg said. “I thought our execution at the beginning was excellent, end of the half was excellent, we had that lull in the middle of the first half where we couldn’t throw that thing in the ocean, but we kept guarding and we gave ourselves a chance.”
Nebraska executed the gameplan “pretty much to perfection,” Hoiberg said after. Whereas NU wanted to cut and move the basketball against Indiana, Nebraska wanted to pick and pop and then if the first action didn’t produce an open 3, swing the ball and get the defense moving side to side. Purdue is 16th nationally in defensive rating; nothing was going to be easy. Yet, the Huskers shot 37% from deep.
Hoiberg challenged Burke and Mack to help on the boards. They got seven and 10 rebounds, respectively, and helped Nebraska keep the rebounding margin respectable against a team that boasted a 7-foot-3 center. Purdue only out-rebounded Nebraska by four (49-45), and it had 19 offensive boards against a team very much smaller than it, but only converted those extra possessions into just five extra buckets.
Hoiberg challenged his team to make Purdue call the first timeout. And Purdue called the first timeout, three minutes and 19 seconds into the game. Nebraska had answered an opening dunk from Matt Haarms with a 9-0 run.
The head coach credited Easley in the locker room after the game, adding that he hasn’t been around many who work harder than the walk-on from Lincoln. Painter credited Thorir Thorbjarnarson, who added 13 points, including the game’s opening 3. Cross had seven and seven boards. Everyone that played scored, and everyone that played grabbed a rebound. Nebraska had 22 assists on 26 made baskets and just 11 team turnovers.
“I thought everybody that stepped on the floor tonight had a positive impact on that win,” Hoiberg said. “That’s what being a team is all about.”
After the Creighton loss—a game that, apologies for repeating, opened with Nebraska facing a 42-11 deficit in the first half—Hoiberg and his group had a film session. They were honest about a lot of things, about play and want-to and determination. No one took it personal.
“I hope that was a turning point for us,” Hoiberg said. “I think we’ve grown since that situation.”
Painter called early-season Nebraska “awful.” The kind of team you don’t even bother showing your guys film of. He said he hoped his Boilermakers would see the team that was run over by Creighton. “Then you see that effort against Indiana and you’re like, ‘Oh, I hope that team doesn’t show up,’” he said.
“We’ve come a long way,” Burke said. “We’re just going to build on this.”
There’s more trust offensively right now. There’s more fire defensively.
“It talks to the character of your guys,” Hoiberg said. “Everybody has to step up in situations like that. One thing I’ve tried not to do and we’ve really tried to instill in our guys is you can’t panic. We’ve had a rough start, we had some tough games early in our season, but what we’ve talked about is continuing to trust the process and continuing to grow this thing along step by step. You can’t cut things out. You can’t shortcut.”
Nebraska’s 5-6 now on the season and 1-1 in Big Ten play. North Dakota comes to town next Saturday and Nebraska can get back to .500 with a win. If Mack continues his ascension, so too will Nebraska. Keep playing like that? Setting the table, setting the tone, being in command of the game? Nebraska will continue to grow into the basketball team its shown these last two games instead of the one it was back in November.
But he probably knows that.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.