Under Tim Miles, Nebraska made a bit of a habit out of losing buy games. The Huskers dropped home games against Incarnate Word in 2014, Samford in 2015 and Gardner-Webb in 2016.
Fred Hoiberg got his out of the way early.
The Huskers dropped their season-opener to a UC Riverside team missing its best player by the score of 66-47 at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Tuesday night.
Nebraska converted six of its first seven shots in the first nine minutes. The Huskers made just 10 more shots the rest of the night. Overall, Nebraska shot 29.1% from the field including 23.1% (6-26) from 3. The preseason struggles from the free-throw line continued as well as Nebraska shot 9-of-19 from the charity stripe.
One of Fred Hoiberg’s recurring messages during his preseason media availabilities was that the Huskers had struggled to deal with adversity. That trend continued into game one as the Highlanders hit seven of their first nine 3-pointers to open the second half and the Huskers couldn’t find an answer on either end of the floor.
“That is the thing that will ultimately tell you what kind of group you have, is when that adversity hits in a real game setting,” Hoiberg said. “You can use the excuse of ‘Well, we have so many new faces and new players;’ we’re not going to do that. We got outplayed today, and we’re going to find a way to bounce back with effort and preparation. That’s all we can do right now, moving forward. But we’re going to take every opportunity, whether we win or lose, to learn from it and grow from it. The adversity hit us in a huge way tonight, and you can talk to your guys until you’re blue in the face: it’s going to hit you every time you step on the floor. What will define you will be how you handle it and we didn’t handle it well tonight.”
Sophomore point guard Cam Mack led the Huskers with 11 points and nine rebounds, but he shot 4-of-13 from the field and had three assists to two turnovers in 32 minutes. Senior forward Matej Kavas scored 10 points off the bench, hitting three of his five shots including 2-of-3 from deep.
Junior guards Jervay Green and Dachon Burke combined to score 12 points on 4-of-16 shooting while senior guard Haanif Cheatham scored one point in 26 minutes. Freshman forward Yvan Ouedraogo finished with nine points but he shot 1-of-4 from the free throw line, missed one bunny at the rim, dropped a dime from Mack and secured just three rebounds in 21 minutes.
Freshman forward Kevin Cross was second on the team with 10 shot attempts as Riverside left him open on the perimeter, but he couldn’t make the Highlanders pat as he shot 1-of-6 from deep and finished with four points.
“I thought early on we had some really good looks,” Hoiberg said. “Kevin Cross has been shooting it really well in practice. They were just backing off of him. It’s frustrating when you have those looks, obviously, and they don’t go in. We missed free throws. We had a chance to go up 12 or 13 points early in the game had we made our free throws. So it could have been a completely different game. If a couple of those go in, if you make your free throws, you keep that momentum. But it didn’t happen, and then they became the confident team and stepped up and hit the shots in the end. You have to give them credit for that.”
UC Riverside shot 12-of-25 from deep and out-scored Nebraska 11-0 in second chance points. Dragan Elkaz and DJ McDonald knocked down four 3-pointers apiece and combined for 29 points as the Huskers lost track of them repeatedly throughout the night. Dikymbe Martin, Riverside’s top returning scorer who averaged nearly 15 points and shot better than 44% from 3 las season did not play in the game.
Burke got Nebraska on the board with a layup from the baseline after a series of pivots, then Mack found Ouedraogo for a layup and followed it up with a 3 off the bounce. Riverside tied it up before Nebraska went on a 9-0 run to pull ahead 16-7.
The Highlanders beat the shot clock buzzer with a 3, but freshman Kevin Cross answered with one of his own for Nebraska, marking the Huskers’ sixth straight made field goal. They cooled off in a hurry after that, however, as the Huskers missed 15 of their next 17 shots, falling behind 30-24.
“We started the game out very strong,” CHeatham said. “We had the crowd hyped and we were very energetic. They went on their run and I think their run caught us off guard. Being a new team, it caught us off guard, a little slap in the face, and we just couldn’t pick it up from there.”
Kavas finally snapped the cold spell with a 3-pointer, then drew a foul on the rebound on the other end and split a pair of bonus free throws to pull Nebraska within two. Riverside got a tip-in to fall just before the buzzer and took a 32-28 lead into the locker room.
Nebraska shot 34.5% from the field in the first half including 3-of-13 from deep, and their preseason free-throw woes continued as they went 5-for-10 from the charity stripe in the first 20 minutes.
“Early on I thought we had a good burst out of the locker room,” Hoiberg said. “I thought our transition was excellent, I thought defensively, we were doing a good job of disrupting them and turning them over and that’s what got us out in transition. Obviously, that changed, and the momentum shifted. I think we started out 6-for-7 and finished the half off 3-for-20. We missed some good looks and I thought that once the ball stopped going in the hoop, defense wasn’t as good. I thought we pressed to try and get it all back, get that momentum all back at once, and the ball movement wasn’t where it needed to be.”
Nebraska’s struggles continued in the second half as they missed their first three shots — two layups by Mack and a mid-range jumper by Burke — and a pair of free throws, falling behind 35-28 as Riverside knocked down another 3.
George Willborn III, RIverside’s leading scorer in the first half with 11 points, picked up his third foul on the play that sent Nebraska to the free-throw line and checked out at the 17:51 mark.
Ouedraogo finally got the Huskers on the board with a bucket in the post.
Two more 3-pointers sandwiched a layup by Mack to give Riverside its largest lead of the game at 41-32, then another 3 after an offensive rebound pushed the deficit to 12, drawing a timeout from Hoiberg. Another 3 out of the break made it 47-32 as the Highlanders connected on five of their first seven 3-point attempts of the second half.
Kavas got one back thanks to a friendly roll, but Riverside answered with yet another 3-ball just before the halftime buzzer after a near miss on a steal attempt left Nebraska’s defense compromised. Riverside hit another one out of the under-12 timeout to make it 53-35 before finally misfiring.
Green knocked down a 3 for Nebraska but Riverside answered with a pair of buckets inside. Burke tired to get the Huskers going with a block on one end and a drive to the basket for a pair of free throws on the other. Burke converted both free throws, the first and only time a Husker went 2-for-2 all night.
However, Riverside responded with a dunk on the other end and the Huskers never threatened the rest of the way. Freshmen Akol Arop and Charlie Easley, a walk-on, checked in for the final 1:19, joining Ouedraogo, Cross and Samari Curtis as freshmen to make their collegiate debut.
“Second half, obviously they came out, they were hot, they were confident,” Hoiberg said. “I give them credit for the way they came in here with their mentality. But it’s an opportunity now and we have to bounce back in a big way on Thursday and have two good days of preparation for this game on Saturday and find a way to get this one behind us. It’s a very disappointing loss, but you have to find a way in this business to get over it and put it behind you and get ready for the next one which is a heck of a team we’re going to be playing on Saturday.”
Hoiberg and the Huskers will have a few days to figure some things out before returning to Pinnacle Bank Arena to host Southern Utah on Saturday afternoon. Tipoff is set for 1 p.m. on BTN+.
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.