Fred Hoiberg still has vivid memories of his senior day. They’re not pleasant ones. The Cyclones dropped Hoiberg’s final game at the Hilton Coliseum to Oklahoma, 71-68.
Hoiberg’s seniors this year at Nebraska won’t share their coach’s fate as the Huskers took down Minnesota 78-74 at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Saturday.
“I’m really happy for the seniors,” Hoiberg said. “You remember this game; it’s one of the games I remember very well, not in a good way. I think we had won every game at Hilton Coliseum my senior year and ended up losing to Oklahoma. I played like crap and it still pisses me off. It was a great win for us and especially for those seniors. They’ll remember this for a long time.”
Prior to the game, Nebraska honored its two seniors — Kobe Webster and Thorir Thorbjarnarson — and junior Derrick Walker, who is the first person from his family to graduate from college. With friends and family in the crowd — as well as members of the volleyball and women’s basketball teams who had their competitions this weekend canceled — the Huskers went on to notch their second Big Ten win of the season.
“It’s just an all-around great day,” Walker said. “The sun’s been out, and it’s been super cold, so I felt like everyone came in today with a bunch of energy and just being ready to play. With it being senior night, we were a little more amped, especially for me, Kobe and Thor. Having my family up here is amazing. They don’t get to see me playing often, so being able to get this dub tonight in front of my family and with these guys was very amazing to me.”
Hoiberg reiterated that he anticipate Walker to return next season, but the program wanted to give him the chance to celebrate his accomplishment alongside his family like the other seniors, neither of whom have decided what they will do next season.
“It was just a great vibe out there,” Webster said.
Each of the thee players honored played a huge role in the win.
Thorbjarnarson finished with 10 points on 3-of-4 shooting, four rebounds and two assists in 25 minutes. He stepped up to the free-throw line with four seconds left and drained a pair of free throws, stretching the lead to four and sealing the game.
Thorbjarnarson’s friends and family — who live in Iceland, Greenland, Sweden and elsewhere — weren’t able to attend, but Nebraska did what it could to bring family to him before the game and with a video message during the senior night festivities. They were all tuned in as well, despite the time zone differences.
“They’re spread all over the world but they always watch until the end, especially tonight,” Thorbjarnarson said. “Shamus [McKnight] had put them up court side on the big screen and I had them on a Zoom call, so it was fun to see … I know my family really wanted to be here today, but obviously it’s not a possibility. I’m happy that they made it work this way. It’s great stuff.”
Thorbjarnarson is the longest-tenured Husker by a significant margin. He had a breakout year under Hoiberg’s tutelage as a junior, but has struggled mightily this season. Over his first 19 games, Thorbjarnarson averaged 2.9 points, 2.5 rebounds and 1.1 assists in 19.5 minutes per game.
Over his last four, however, he’s been a key rotation player, chipping in 6.8 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists in 24.3 minutes per game while shooting 53.3% from the field including 50% from 3.
“Maybe just the realization of we’re getting close to the end,” Thorbjarnarson said. “Maybe I wasn’t thinking about that enough, obviously right now wondering what I’ll do for the next year, what the next step in my career’s going to be. I think maybe I was putting too much pressure on myself, something like that. So just let go, enjoy the moment, and I obviously had a great talk with Coach Hoiberg.”
Thorbjarnarson shot 4-of-23 from 3 the year before Hoiberg arrived, but with some tweaks he turned into a deadly marksmen, shooting 37.2% from 3 on 4.0 attempts per game. Recently, Hoiberg sat down with Thorbjarnarson to watch some tape and discuss his struggles.
“We went back and watched his shot from last year, just to see the arc that he was putting not it,” Hoiberg said. “He had a lot more lift on his shot. He was really getting flat with it this year, so we went back and watched those clips and I continue to tell him ‘hunt your shot.’ I still feel really good when he shoots it because he continues to shoot the ball well in practice. So it was a lot of that, and then he spoke a lot of Icelandic stuff that I couldn’t understand. He might have been swearing at me, I don’t know.”
Thorbjarnarson hit a big 3 against the Golden Gophers, but even more important were a couple of assists to Walker in the second half. Minnesota had cut a 13-point deficit down to three thanks to a five-minute scoring drought by the Huskers featuring six straight missed shots from the field. Needing a bucket in the worst way, Thorbjarnarson set talker up for buckets on back-to-back possessions.
“Yeah, I think we have a pretty good chemistry, but I don’t know if you guys recall, but he really missed that one layup I set him up for and I told him that he better not mess up any more of my passes,” Thorbjarnarson said in a light-hearted tone. “It was good that he come down in the clutch and made those layups.”
Walker nearly finished with a double-double, scoring 12 points on 6-of-10 shooting and grabbing nine rebounds.
As for Webster, like Thorbjarnarson he came up clutch at the free-throw line, hitting a pair with less than 10 seconds left to push Nebraska’s lead back to three. He finished with 10 points on 3-of-6 shooting including 2-of-3 from deep and dished out a season-high four assists.
“I think it’s just like the feeling of this day,” Thorbjarnarson said. “We kind of just sensed it. We all had a pretty good game and we stepped up for a few plays in this game. This day means something and it was really fun to get the win.”
Nebraska made Saturday’s game its senior night because of the logistics of getting family in the arena, but the Huskers still have one more home game remaining — Monday against Rutgers. Nebraska’s previous win came on the road at Penn State, and the Huskers had to head to College Park for a pair of games at Maryland immediately afterward. With a more favorable schedule, Nebraska is hoping to pick up a bit of momentum heading into the postseason, starting with Saturday’s victory.
“That was the goal coming in,” Webster said. “We know that the Big Ten Tournament’s coming up, so we obviously want to get that momentum going. Start seeing that ball go in, start seeing it move and get that momentum going into that tournament and hopefully make some noise. I think having a home stretch definitely does help, just with our bodies, we can get treatment at the facilities, sleep in our own beds, not have to be on a flight or a bus all the time. So I think it does help, but this is what we signed up for. We’re going to be ready either way.”
Monday’s game against the Scarlet Knights (13-9, 9-9 Big Ten) is set to tip off Monday at 6 p.m. CT on Big Ten Network.