Round two against Indiana didn’t follow the exact script from the first game in Bloomington, but the Huskers still dug a big hole, rallied late and came up short at the end in an 82-74 loss to the Hoosiers at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Saturday night.
The Huskers dropped their third straight and fell to 7-11 on the season including 2-5 in Big Ten play. Paid attendance was 15,925 as the students were back after winter break.
Indiana’s size won out as its starting front line of Trayce Jackson-Davis, Joey Brunk and Justin Smith combined for 49 points and 25 rebounds. Indiana (14-4, 4-3 Big Ten) was plus-10 in the paint and plus-six in second-chance points.
Cam Mack led all players with 20 points and nine assists. Thorir Thorbjarnarson was one of Mack’s primary targets as he finished with 13 points, nine rebounds, three assists and three steals with the sophomore point guard assisting on three of his five buckets.
“I thought Thor was phenomenal for us all game long, I thought he did a great job battling,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s giving up size guarding the four position every night. Those three guys were unbelievably efficient with Smith, Jackson-Davis, and Brunk. Those guys are a load for us but I thought Thor battled the heck out of them."
Dachon Burke Jr. and Haanif Cheatham scored 12 and 10 points, respectively, but they shot a combined 9-of-22 from the field. Former walk-on Charlie Easley gave the team a spark off the bench with a career-high eight points in 16 minutes.
Both sides executed pretty well offensively early on with Nebraska taking a 10-7 lead into the first media timeout. The Hoosiers started exploiting their size advantage on the offensive glass and hit Nebraska with a 7-2 run to pull ahead 14-12.
Mack took over from there, orchestrating an 11-0 run that featured a layup by him and 3s from Thorbjarnarson, Cheatham and Cross, all off Mack passes.
Indiana cut the lead down to six a couple of times on 3-point shots but the Huskers answered both times. Nebraska slipped up on the third push, however, giving up a 12-2 run as the Hoosiers pulled ahead 32-30.
Nebraska took a 34-33 lead but the Hoosiers knocked down their sixth 3 of the half to jump back in front heading into the under-4 timeout. The Huskers doubled in the post all game long and it opened up some opportunities on the perimeter which the Hoosiers—who had shot 24.5% from 3 in conference play heading into the game—took advantage of.
“We tried to stick to the game plan,” Easley said. “They came in not hitting many 3s, obviously, but they came out shooting and that’s credit to them.”
The triple sparked a 9-0 streak as the Huskers hit a rut, missing eight of nine shots, while Indiana was scoring at the rim far too easily.
Mack ended the run with a 3 and the two teams played even over the last two minutes to make it 46-41 Indiana at halftime.
“I loved our energy early in that game,” Hoiberg said. “We got off to a great start. Where I thought we lost it was about the eight-minute mark. The first 12 minutes we were phenomenal getting back, rebounding the ball. Those last eight minutes of the first half they scored 10 in transition; in the first 12 minutes they had zero. That was the game tonight: getting back in defensive transition and rebounding. I thought we were terrific early rebounding the ball and that got us out in transition and we were making the extra pass and the ball was moving. Our offense for those first 10, 12 minutes was as good as it’s been all year.”
Mack was the only player for either side in double figures with 17 points on 5-of-7 from the field including 3-of-3 from deep and 4-of-7 from the line and he also dished out five assists without a turnover in 19 minutes. He picked up his second foul with 31 seconds left in the first half and Jervay Green replaced him, his first appearance of the game.
“I think there’s probably maybe one or two players that I’ve seen in college with the ability to pass the ball like Cam Mack passes the ball,” Indiana coach Archie Miller said. “He’s not seeing the first read, he’s picking on your second and third guys with one-hand baseball passes on a dime across the floor. He’s a special passer.”
The Huskers were plus-five at the free-throw line (despite missing nine of their 14 attempts) but Indiana was plus-four in the paint. Both sides hit six 3-pointers.
Indiana opened the second half on a 10-2 run with all 10 points coming in the paint. The Huskers hit just one of their first six shots and turned the ball over twice in the first three-and-a-half minutes. Indiana tacked on two more 3-pointers to push the lead to 19 until Cheatham hit one of his own from the wing.
“We got off to a great start,” Thorbjarnarson said. “I think we gave them too many points in the first half, but in the end they went on a little bit of a run to get the lead. The beginning of the second half we just came out too flat. I think that’s where we lost the game.”
Easley’s second 3-pointer in the span of about 70 seconds sparked a 9-2 run including tough finishes by Cheatham and Green to cut Indiana’s lead down to 12 before the 10-minute mark. After nearly two minutes without a point from either side, Thorbjarnarson drove in for a finger-roll to cut it to 10, then Mack drew a foul at the rim and hit both free throws to cut it to eight with 8 minutes to play.
Nebraska’s strong defense continued as the Hoosiers went without a field goal for 8:07 of game time, but Nebraska wasn’t much better on offense and went 4:24 without a point thanks to a combination of missed shots and turnovers. Brunk scored three straight to push the lead back to 11, then Nebraska cut it back to eight with a layup by Thorbjarnarson and a free throw by Mack.
“The second half, defensive energy really picked up to get is back into the game, cut the thing to eight, and then I think we have five turnovers in a six-possession span and that’s uncharacteristic for us,” Hoiberg said. “We’ve done a very good job of taking care of the basketball this year and when you go down there and you get the stops and you get out in transition and you don’t get a shot up on the glass, that hurts you. I give our guys credit for continuing to battle, continuing to go out there and guard and give ourselves a chance to keep it in striking distance, but unfortunately those turnovers—you cut that thing to six or four, it’s potentially a whole different ball game.”
After exchanging points a couple of times, Nebraska made one last push as Burke converted a three-point play then Easley forced a turnover as Indiana tried to break Nebraska’s press. Mack found Thorbjarnarson under the basket for a layup to cut it to six with 80 seconds to play.
Nebraska got the ball back on a pair of missed free throws but never got anything going offensively as Burke fired up a contested step-back 3 that missed everything and led to a run-out layup for Jackson-Davis.
Mack found Thorbjarnarson again for a bucket inside and again Easley forced a turnover on the in-bound, but Indiana smothered the Huskers defensively on the perimeter and Mack settled for a contested 3. Jackson-Davis closed it out with a trip to the line and made both shots.
“Charlie came in and helped us a lot,” Thorbjarnarson said. “He got us on the good run and we had some good stops in the second half, but it wasn’t enough.”
After controlling the action in the first half, Mack missed all eight of his field goals and scored three points on free throws in the second. He dished out four more assists but turned the ball over three times as well.
“Cam obviously was hitting shots [early],” Hoiberg said. “When you go out and you go 3-for-3 from the 3-point line, it gets you going. I thought he got to the rim and finished well, he got himself to the free-throw line, but second half… Cam’s a facilitator. That’s what he does, that’s what he takes pride in. That’s the role that he takes pride in on of this team and I thought he was trying to get everybody else involved.”
After his 30-second stint in the first half, Green played nearly six minutes in the second half and was part of Nebraska’s run to get back into the game late. He was a team-best plus-6 for the game and finished with two points and one rebound.
Both sides cooled off from the perimeter but Indiana outscored Nebraska by six in the paint.
The Huskers will head back out on the road next week where wins have been few and far between in the Big Ten this season. Nebraska will play at Wisconsin on Tuesday.
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.