In Tuesday’s game at Michigan, Fred Hoiberg played the same five-man unit — Kobe Webster, Keisei Tominaga, Bryce McGowens, C.J. Wilcher and Derrick Walker — for 12-and-a-half consecutive minutes down the stretch.
That group turned an eight-point deficit into a seven-point lead in six minutes, but the game immediately changed after that as Michigan hit the Huskers with a 13-2 run. Hoiberg stuck with that group throughout that run and the Huskers tied the game up again, but they couldn’t close it out as Michigan scored the final six points to hand Nebraska its 11th straight conference loss.
“I just thought that was the group that gave us the best chance to win the game, and obviously they turned a 10-point deficit into a seven-point lead,” Hoiberg said. “I thought Keisei made a great play on the ball. Unfortunately, it turned into a T and a four-point play, possibly a six- or seven-point swing. Those guys were out there battling their hearts out and giving us every chance to win the game. So I just rolled with the guys that that I felt gave us the best chance and they played great.”
The turning point was a technical foul on Tominaga, who had provided a spark with a pair of tough finishes inside and a 3-pointer during that second-half run. The 6-foot-2 guard cleanly blocked Michigan’s 7-foot-1 center, Hunter Dickinson, from behind, but an official called a foul and Tominaga ran out to half court waving his arms in disbelief. However, Hoiberg didn’t take him out and let him finish the game.
“Keisei is one of the most passionate guys I’ve been around,” Hoiberg said. “He went in there and made a great play swarming the ball. Unfortunately, it happens, especially on the road. You’re going to have some of those calls and you’ve just got to stay poised through that. I thought there was a similar situation in the first half where they had a player that did almost the exact same thing and it wasn’t called, but that’s neither here nor there. So you’ve got to keep your poise in that situation. But as far as Keisei’s passion, I’m never going to take that away from him. It’s what makes him who he is as an undersized guard, because of the way he approaches everything. I love the kid and, again, we’ll never take his passion away.”
Tuesday was Nebraska’s third straight single-digit loss and ninth of the season. Nebraska’s next opponent, Northwestern, is 3-8 in Big Ten play (and 10-10 overall), but they have one double-digit loss all season (by 20 to Purdue).
“They’re playing really well,” Hoiberg said. “They had a 24-point second half lead against Rutgers; give Rutgers credit for continuing to go back, find a way to get that game into overtime, and then give Northwestern credit for keeping their poise and finding a way to get the win. They’ve had a couple of great wins — at Michigan State was a huge win, not many people go into that building and win. They had a chance to beat Michigan on the road, and really all their games. Illinois was a very close game. They’re playing a lot of close ones. But this team has everything. They’ve got size, they’ve got skill, they shoot it really well with their guards and they’re an elite rebounding team … So we just have to go out there and play really solid across the board and play consistent for 40 minutes.”
Both teams are very familiar with close games this season, and each of the meetings between the two teams since Hoiberg arrived in Lincoln have been close. The Wildcats are 3-0 with wins by five, five (in overtime) and by one.
“I think we played them three times since I’ve been here — we had a shot to tie it the first game, I think we went 8-for-28 the second game from the line and lost in overtime and then last year they tipped one in at the buzzer to beat us,” Hoiberg said. “So we play close games and both of us have been in a lot of close games this year.”
At the top of the scouting report on the Wildcats is senior forward Pete Nance (6-foot-10, 225 pounds). He is averaging 15.9 points, 6.9 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.3 blocks and can score both inside and out, presenting a different kind of challenge than some of the hulking centers and dominant post players the Huskers have seen throughout conference play.
“He’s very athletic, 44% 3-point shooter, so he just he gives a different look than what we’ve seen recently,” Hoiberg said. “We’ve been playing a lot of the low-post, strong bigs that you worry about on the block. Nance does a little bit everything — leading his team him in scoring, rebounding, blocks. To be able to step out and knock down shots makes you adjust your coverages. So we’ve got to make him take tough ones, that’s that’s the biggest thing with Nance. But the kid’s having a heck of a year.”
The Huskers still have a more traditional post presence off the bench in junior Ryan Young (6-foot-10, 245 pounds) who averages 9.5 points and shoots 55.6% from the field, but he only plays 17.6 minute per game as Nance spends plenty of time at the five.
Junior point guard Boo Buie runs the show for Chris Collins, averaging 14.8 points and 5.2 assists while junior guard Chase Audige contributes 11.2 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.8 steals per game.
Per KenPom, the Wildcats are 58th in the country in adjusted offensive deficiency and 91st in adjusted defensive efficiency. They are fifth in the country in turnover percentage, giving the ball away on just 13.8% of their possessions, and they shoot 35.1% from 3 (93rd nationally).
Considering the Huskers’ close game struggles this season, Hoiberg’s message to his team recently has focused on everything else leading up to crunch time. Confidence is key to succeeding late when the pressure ramps up, and building a comfortable lead and holding onto it to get a win under their belts could go a long way towards boosting the team’s performance in the clutch.
“The biggest thing is you look for stretches over the course of the game where maybe it doesn’t get to the last couple possessions,” Hoiberg said. “The last game against Michigan, to have a seven-point halftime lead and then to have a 17-point turnaround and now you dig yourself a 10-point hole. You withstand that, you don’t give them that run, we go out there and build on the lead and it doesn’t get to the last couple minutes. So there’s always stretches of the game. Always crunch time is magnified, but when you look at those stretches over the course of the game, that’s what lost the game the other night was those first six minutes of the second half.”
The Northwestern game tips off a stretch of seven straight games against the other five teams with sub.-500 conference play as the Huskers’ league schedule was heavily front-loaded. The Huskers will also wear special, symbolic uniforms against the Wildcats to recognize Black History Month.
“In the Black community, we often channel and celebrate the perseverance of our ancestors who have overcome adversities while also recognizing that some of them never received the flowers while they could still smell them. People like Ida B. Wells, Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr.” said Dr. Lawrence Chatters, Executive Associate Athletic Director for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for Nebraska Athletics. “These uniforms are symbolic of overcoming the struggle and represent hope and optimism for a better and brighter tomorrow.”
Tipoff on Saturday at Pinnacle Bank Arena is set for noon CT on Big Ten Network with Kevin Kugler and Rapheal Davis on the call.
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.