It wasn’t pretty (something you’ve probably read a lot this season), but the Huskers closed out the nonconference slate in victorious fashion, taking down Texas A&M-Corpus Christi 73-52 at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Sunday afternoon.
Little seemed to go right for Nebraska on offense for long stretches of the game, but the Huskers didn’t let that impact their defensive effort as they held the Islanders to 31.7 percent from the field and forced 21 turnovers. Fifteen those turnovers were Nebraska steals and the Huskers scored 24 points off takeaways. The Islanders’ 52 points were a season-low for a Nebraska opponent.
Coming off the loss to North Dakota, Coach Fred Hoiberg said a lot of their focus in practice this week has been on body language and energy in the face of adversity, and the Huskers handled it much better on Sunday than they did against the Fighting Hawks.
“I thought early we had some great looks,” Hoiberg said. “We missed a couple easy layups, we missed some wide open 3s, but we stayed in it, we stayed together, we kept guarding and eventually went on that run where we got up 18.”
Senior Haanif Cheatham put the team on his back early, scoring 11 of his team-high 17 points in the first half with the rest of the Huskers struggling. He shot 4-of-8 from the field — burying his only 3-point attempt — and 8-of-9 from the foul line and surpassed 1,000 career points on a three-point play in the first half.
“You have to try to manufacture some points when that ball’s not going in the hoop,” Hoiberg said. “I think 1-for-13 at halftime from the 3-point line, but we got to the free-throw line 19 times and a lot of that was Haanif getting out in front of the ball and attacking the basket. You have to have that when the ball’s not going in and you have to continue to guard, and I thought we did that.”
Yvan Ouedraogo recorded his first career-double, tying his career-high of 11 points and setting a new career-high with 14 rebounds, six of which were offensive. He shot 3-of-5 form the field and 5-of-7 from the line and became the first Nebraska freshman to record a double-double since Shavon Shields did it in 2013. With Ouedraogo setting the tone, Nebraska grabbed 15 offensive rebounds and outscored the Islanders 17 to six in second-chance points.
“I talk about this a lot,” Hoiberg said. “Sometimes we forget Yvan is still a 17-year-old kid. You look at him out there and he’s got a big, strong body, he’s a big, physical kid, but in reality he probably should be playing in high school this year. So we’re asking a lot of him to go out there and start in a conference that’s as physical as any in the country. He’s going to have a battle on Friday against a very physical, maybe the most physical team in our league in Rutgers. Not only Yvan, but Kevin as well. I thought those guys did a good job doing their work early. You have to do that when you’re giving up size. But for Yvan to go out and get that double-double was huge with the 14 rebounds … The six offensive rebounds and I thought he finished better as the game went on, and his free throws looked good. I really liked his free-throw stroke today.”
Cam Mack had 10 points and five assists while Matej Kavas provided a spark off the bench with 10 points and five rebounds. Overall, the Huskers shot 34.8% from the field including 28% from deep. The also shot better than 70% from the free-throw line for just the third tim in 13 games, hitting 20 of their 28 attempts (71.4%).
Cheatham got to the line and finished a couple times, once in transition and once in the halfcourt, but the rest of the Huskers struggled to get anything going, missing their first eight shots until Thorbjarnarson knocked down Nebraska’s first 3 from the corner.
Jordan Hairston answered with a 3 of his own on the other end, but Nebraska settled in from there, at least defensively. The Huskers started turning turnovers into points and ripped off an 11-0 run. The Islanders got a free three and a 3-pointer to end the run, but the Huskers followed that up by holding A&M-Corpus Christi scoreless for six minutes, building up a 30-12 lead by the under-4 media timeout.
Nebraska was locked in defensively for the most part against a good 3-point shooting team, holding the Islanders to 3-of-14 from deep in the first half while blocking at least three of those shots and chasing a few more shooters off the line for mid-range pull-ups.
However, A&M-Corpus Christi stopped settling for jumpers and started going strong to the rim, and Nebraska’s defense broke down a bit. The Islanders closed the half on a 9-4 run to make i 34-21 Nebraska at halftime.
Nebraska shot 30% from the field in the first half including 1-of-12 from deep, though the huskers did have some success getting to the free-throw line, going 13-for-19. Cheatham led the Huskers with 11 points while Mack added seven points and a pair of assists. Nebraska forced 12 turnovers and converted them into 12 points the other way.
Nebraska’s offensive woes continued into the second half as the Huskers missed 12 of their first 13 shot attempts while the islanders whittled the lead down to 10. However, Kevin Cross Jr. came up with a loose ball after A&M-Corpus Christi failed to secure a rebound and kicked it out to Thorbjarnarson for a 3, sparking an 11-5 run that included 3s by Cheatham and Matej Kavas as well.
Texas A&M-Corpus Christi got a couple of buckets from Hairston in the paint on back-to-back possession but the Huskers blew the game open from there, scoring 11 straight points including an alley-oop from Mack to Green, a steal and score by Green and a 3-pointer by Kavas that made it 60-37 with just under seven minutes to play.
The Huskers cruised to the finish from here as the lead never dipped below 19. The highlight of the final stretch can with 1:20 to play. The Islanders knocked the ball out with 2 seconds on the shot clock and Nebraska had it in the corner. The Huskers ran a play to get freshman walk-on Charlie Easley a look from the perimeter and he buried it for his first career triple.
The Huskers continued to struggle to convert inside the arc in the second half, shooting 7-of-23 on 2-pointers, but they warmed up from the perimeter and hit six of their 13 3-point attempts.
Ouedraogo did most of his work in he second half with 10 points and eight boards. He missed both of his shots in the first half but went 3-of-3 in the second.
“At the halftime I was just thinking about ‘Don’t think about your missed shots and everything, just keep going, keep going hard, keep bringing some energy and the ball’s going to fall in,’” Ouedraogo said. “I kept focused and that’s it.”
Nebraska finished 5-6 in nonconference play and will now dive fully into the Big Ten schedule to kick off 2020. The Huskers split their two December league games and will now take on Rutgers at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Friday.
“From day one, I think everybody knew it was going to be kind of a stretch,” Cheatham said. “I think we all knew it wasn’t going to be all rainbows and perfect. I think we all knew it was going to be ups and downs. The grind of the season is what makes it perfect because at the end of it you get to look back and see how far you came as a team, and I think we’re on the right path right now. The last game going into break was devastating but we bounced back and I think we’re going to be ready going into Rutgers coming here and for the next Big Ten games.”
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.