A career-high performance by senior Haanif Cheatham and a big second half by Dachon Burke Jr. carried the Huskers to a third-place finish in the Cayman Islands Classic as Nebraska took down South Florida 74-67 to finish 2-1 in the tournament.
“It was very important for us,” Cheatham said about the win. “We had an emotional meeting this morning talking about how this season will have ups and downs and how we have to stick together. I think we had a lot of fire tonight and I think we had it for all 40 minutes, and I think it showed. We played together; I think this was probably the best game we’ve played together. We played as a team, we had each others’ backs and we came out victorious.”
Cheatham led all scorers with 26 points on 8-of-11 from the field and 9-of-11 from the free-throw line. The grad transfer cracked 20 for the first time as a Husker and topped his previous career high of 24 set during his freshman season at Marquette.
“Haanif stepped up,” Fred Hoiberg said. “Haanif’s been stepping up a lot. The first couple games, I told him, ‘Haanif, you’re good, it’s a long season.’ I feel like since then, he’s had his best games. I’m happy, I’m proud of him and I love him.”
Cheatham, who scored 19, 13 and 26 points on 70% shooting in his three games in the Caymans, was named to the all-tournament team.
After scoring just two points in the first half, Burke shot 7-of-8 from the field in the second half and finished with 21 points on 8-of-11 from the field and 3-of-5 from deep including the dagger with just over a minute to play.
After sophomore point guard Cam Mack started Nebraska’s first six games, Hoiberg decided to bring him off the bench, starting senior Matej Kavas in his place. Mack only scored five points but he dished out seven assists with just one turnover in 26 minutes.
During his post-game interview, Hoiberg praised the play of freshman big man Yvan Ouedraogo who finished with six points and five rebounds and was a game-high plus-19 in 24 minutes.
Nebraska (4-3) shot 55.1% from the field, 42.9% from 3 and 73.7% from the free-throw line. Nebraska cut its turnovers in half in the second half and finished with nine, though the offensive glass continued to be an issue as the Bulls (3-4) grabbed 17 caroms and converted them into 15 second-chance points.
The Huskers held the Bulls to 38.6% from the field and 29.6% from deep. South Florida attempted just six free throws. The Huskers turned their defense into offense, running off rebounds and turnovers and outscoring the Bulls 17-3 in fast break points.
“Us rebounding and getting on the run helped us a lot,” Cheatham said. “Our transition is hard to stop. Once we get our transition, we score almost every time. I think we found a way to execute. We played smart, we listened to Coach and the game plan and we came out, played it right and did well.”
Nebraska jumped out to a 6-0 lead before giving up a 3-pointer after two offensive boards on one possession and then a layup after a turnover. The Huskers scored twice in a row including a big dunk from Burke down the lane to take a 10-5 lead but the Bulls responded with a 6-0 run to pull ahead.
Kavas ended the run with a pull-up jumper but South Florida responded with a triple. Mack, who checked in just over five minutes into the game, tied it up with a tough bucket inside but South Florida responded with four straight. Mack found Thorbjarnarson for a layup and then freshman Samari Curtis for a 3, giving the Huskers a brief 19-18 lead, but the Bulls scored the next nine points, all on fairly open 3-point looks, to take a 27-19 lead.
Both sides caught fire after that as seven straight possessions ended in points, resulting in a 33-27 lead for the Bulls. After a couple of empty possessions, South Florida got a dunk on a pick-and-roll feed to Michael Durr to push the lead back to eight.
After missing six of their first seven 3-pointers, Nebraska finally found the range and knocked down a pair of triples — one by Jervay Green and one by Cheatham — to cut the deficit to two with 1:43 to play in the half.
Neither side scored the rest of the way and South Florida took a 35-33 lead into the locker room. Turnovers and offensive rebounds continued to be a problem for Nebraska as the Bulls grabbed nine offensive boards and out-scored Nebraska 7-0 in second-chance points. The Huskers shot 50% from the field and hit all four of their free throws but turned the ball over six times.
South Florida shot 40.5% from the field and 29.4% from 3, but the extra possessions overcame Nebraska’s efficiency as the Bulls took 11 more field goal attempts, resulting in two more made 3-pointers.
Cheatham hit his first four field goal attempts before missing his last, finishing with 11 points in the first half. Kavas added six points on 3-of-3 shooting.
Nebraska got off to a hot start in the second half, scoring seven of the first nine points to take a 40-37 lead. After the sides traded buckets, South Florida used a 14-4 run to pull ahead 53-46.
Then the Huskers locked in defensively, ripping off a 13-0 run that included four straight South Florida turnovers leading to eight points the other way. Mack found Thorir Thorbjarnarson on a cut to the basket to cap the run and give Nebraska a 59-53 lead with just over nine minutes to play.
South Florida ended its drought with a floater off the glass, but Cheatham got two more layups on feeds from Mack and freshman Kevin Cross Jr. to tie his career-high of 24 and give Nebraska a 63-55 lead. South Florida responded with a 7-0 run, aided by a change to a 2-3 zone on defense, to pull within one with four minutes to play.
Out of a timeout, Nebraska swung the ball around a couple of times before Burke fired up a 3-pointer from the right wing and drilled it. Nebraska held South Florida to one point on its next three possession before Burke nailed another 3 from well beyond the line to push the lead back to six.
“Burke’s two 3s, when I saw them go up, I was like ‘Please go in, please go in,’ and God was listening and they went in,” Cheatham said. “Those were two clutch shots that we needed that probably won us the game.”
South Florida got a couple of buckets in the final minute, but the Huskers got a runner from Mack and shot 3-of-4 from the line to seal the victory.
Nebraska shot just over 60% from the field including 3-of-5 from deep in the second half.
The Huskers are done down in the Cayman Islands, but their stretch of games away from home continues as Nebraska will travel to Atlanta to face Georgia Tech in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge on Wednesday. Tipoff is set for 6:15 on ESPNU.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.