With 12.9 seconds to play and Maryland up 71-70, Anthony Cowan Jr. — a career 80.5% free-throw shooter — missed the front end of the one-and-one. Jervay Green grabbed the rebound and got the ball to Cam Mack.
Fred Hoiberg had a timeout if he wanted it, but he gave his point guard a chance to make a play. Mack crossed up Cowan and blew by him, exploding down the lane and elevating for a right-handed layup at the basket.
However, Jalen “Stix” Smith, Maryland’s 6-foot-11 center and a likely All-Big Ten selection, rotated over, timed Mack’s layup perfectly and swatted the shot, preserving the lead. The ball bounced around until it found its way back into Smith’s hands and Nebraska fouled him with 0.7 on the clock.
Smith hit the first free throw and intentionally missed the second and Haanif Cheatham’s near full-court prayer came up well short, sealing Nebraska’s ninth straight loss.
Mack made a great play. Smith just made a better one. Maryland is sitting atop the Big Ten at 10-3 in conference play and 20-4 overall and the Terrapins are now 14-0 at the XFINITY Center, but the Huskers gave them a run for their money.
“Like I told them in the locker room, we just went toe-to-toe with the No. 9 team in the country who’s got the best record in the best league in the country right now,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said during his post-game press conference. “A lot of positives tonight for our team.”
After back-to-back disappointing efforts against Penn State and Iowa, Nebraska (7-17, 2-11 Big Ten) rallied to cut a double-digit deficit down to one possession twice in the second half, giving itself a chance to win it at the end. The Huskers just couldn’t get over the hump.
The block capped another rough day on the court for Mack who finished with four points on 1-of-10 from the field and 2-of-4 from the line. He is 6-of-28 from the field including 1-of-11 in his last three games.
Nebraska was without a starter in Dachon Burke Jr. who stayed back in Lincoln with the flu, but the other starter who was questionable heading into the game — Cheatham — stepped up despite being a game-time decision with an injured calf.
Cheatham scored just two points on 1-of-4 shooting in 10 first-half minutes, but he took over in the second half, scoring 18 of his game-high 20 on 6-of-7 from the field and 5-of-6 from the foul line.
“He couldn’t put much pressure on it yesterday,” Hoiberg said. “He didn’t do anything in our practice, jogged a little bit then last night he came over with our trainer, RJ, and got some shots up and sweated a little bit. Still didn’t know if he could play. He did a little bit in shoot-around this morning but he really was a game-time decision for us tonight. He showed a lot of toughness, I thought, made huge plays for us down the stretch, getting to the basket, getting to the free-throw line. Haanif is a tough kid. He wants to go out on a high note; this is his last year.”
Maryland closed the first half on an 18-6 run to take a 38-25 lead into the locker room. Mack, Cheatham,Green (starting in place of the ill Burke) and Kevin Cross Jr. (getting his first career start at the five in place of fellow freshman Yvan Ouedraogo) combined for four points on 2-of-21 from the field including 0-of-12 from 3 and 0-of-2 from the line.
Thorir Thorbjarnarson scored 10 of his 15 in the first half to keep the Huskers within striking distance despite the team shooting 27.3% from the field including 3-of-20 from 3 in the first half.
Maryland led 54-42 with less than 12 minutes to play when Matej Kavas knocked down a 3, sparking a 12-2 run that brought Nebraska to within two. Five different Huskers scored during that stretch. Kavas finished with 11 points on 3-of-6 from the field including 2-of-4 from 3 and 3-of-3 from the line, his first double-digit scoring game in Big Ten play.
A 3-2 zone gave Nebraska’s offense some trouble as Maryland pushed its lead back to 10 with an 8-0 run, but the Huskers weren’t ready to call it a night. Cheatham converted three-point plays on back-to-back possessions then scored two more points at the line to make it 66-62 with 2:22 to play.
Nebraska answered a layup with a layup and a 3 with a 3 to keep the deficit at four with 41 seconds to play. Hoiberg dialed up a full-court press with Akol Arop on the ball and after the Terps got the ball in Cowan threw a bad pass, allowing the freshman Arop to dive on it and pass it off to Cheatham at the rim. Cheatham looked to have a chance at a three-point play, but the layup came up just short and then he split the free throws to make it 71-68.
Nebraska fouled Ayala after the ensuing in-bound but he missed the front end and the Terrapins chose to foul Mack instead of letting Nebraska attempt a 3. Mack hit both, leading to the final sequence.
The Huskers shot 54.8% from the field in the second half but only 4-of-13 from 3. Nebraska shot 7-of-33 from deep for the game.
“I’m really proud of our team for how we responded to adversity,” Hoiberg said. “There was a lot of positivity at halftime even though we were down 13 points. We came out and we went on a run. That’s where we’ve struggled, we’ve struggled at the beginning of second halves. But I thought our energy was tremendous in that second half all the way through. That’s all I can ask of those guys, to go out and continue to get better, continue to buy in and play together, for each other … Unfortunately the ball didn’t go in like it had been for us.”
The Huskers will look to end their losing streak at home against Wisconsin on Saturday. tipoff is set for 1:15 p.m.
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.