As the old cliche says, basketball is a make or miss game. Nebraska had a chance to take the lead and it missed. Rutgers got that same chance and it capitalized, resulting in a 75-72 loss for the Huskers at the RAC.
However, Rutgers got a few different chances to get the makes it needed. With Nebraska leading 72-69, the Huskers forced a miss but didn’t complete the stop with a box-out and a rebound, leading to a second-chance 3 by Geo Baker for the tie.
After trading turnovers, Nebraska got Charlie Easley a wide open look from the corner but he couldn’t get it to fall, and Caleb McConnell boxed out to secure the board with 43 seconds to play.
“I’d bet a lot of money Charlie knocks that shot down,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He's got no fear, he's a kid that will step up at any time, take a shot as a freshman that, as of two-and-a-half weeks ago, was a walk-on. Had a good look at it there.”
Rutgers ran the clock down and Baker fired up a step-back jumper, missing badly, but Nebraska couldn’t corral the board and Rutgers got the ball back to Baker with the shot clock off. He went for the step-back again, only this time he buried it.
“He's a big time player,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said. “I give him credit for stepping up and knocking down the two biggest shots of the game. He's certainly capable of going off any night. He’s shown that his entire career. Unfortunately, it happened against us where I think he was 1-for-9 since he was back from the injury and missed his first 3 [today]. But then stepped up with confidence and knocked it down. It's what he's done in his career to make big shots.”
Nebraska did not score a point in the final 3:09 as Rutgers closed the game on a 9-0 run. Those two late 3s were the only shots Baker made all night. Rutgers is now 14-0 at home this season.
Rutgers outscored Nebraska 17-5 in second-chance points, though the Scarlet Knights only grabbed 10 offensive rebounds.
Foul trouble limited Cam Mack to just 10 minutes in the first half, but he was terrific in the second half and finished with a team-high 19 points on 6-of-7 from the field (4-of-5 from 3) and 3-of-5 from the free-throw line and four assists.
Thorir Thorbjarnarson tied his career high with five 3-pointers, scoring 17 points and grabbing eight rebounds. Jervay Green gave the Huskers a spark int he second half and finished with 11 points on 5-of-7 shooting, five rebounds and two steals.
Nebraska shot 11-of-28 (39.3%) from 3 but just 41.9% overall as the Huskers struggled to finish inside the arc for long stretches of the game.
“I thought we had key contributions from a lot of players tonight,” Hoiberg said. “A lot of guys went out there and made big plays. Charlie Easley has not finished a game for us this year and he made big play after big play on the defensive end, getting deflections and making hustle plays … Cam Mack, we had to play without Cam when he was out with foul trouble for nine minutes in that first half, and our guys continued to go out there and battle and do it together. We kind of did it by committee when Cam was out of the game as far as who's going to handle the ball. It was a gutty effort by our guys.”
Rutgers shot 45.2% from the field including 36.4% (8-of-22) from 3. Stony Brook grad transfer Akwasi Yeboah led the Scarlet Knights with 20 points on 6-of-10 from the field (3-of-6 from 3) and 5-of-6 from the line. He’s the one who grabbed the offensive rebound to set up Baker’s game-winner.
Nebraska jumped out to a 9-2 start on three drive-and-kick 3s — two by Thorbjarnarson and one by Mack. Mack picked up his second foul on a Rutgers three-point play at the 16:07 mark, however, and took a seat. That sparked an 11-2 run to give Rutgers its first lead at 13-11.
Easley, who replaced Mack, hit a 3 to end the run and the teams traded the lead three more times after that on three more 3-pointers. Rutgers pulled ahead by four but the Huskers got layups from Easley and Green to make it 23-21 Rutgers 12 minutes in.
The Huskers hit a rough stretch offensively from there as bad decisions led to some easy looks the other way and Rutgers took a 30-23 lead with a 7-2 run capped by a transition alley-oop to Ron Harper Jr.
Fred Hoiberg called a timeout to give his team chance to regroup and the Huskers responded well, ripping off an 8-0 run sparked by Cross to take a 31-30 lead. Nebraska cooled off again, however, as Rutgers closed out the half on an 8-2 run to take a 38-33 lead into the locker room. The Huskers turned the ball over twice, missed a corner 3 and then missed two shots at the rim during the final two minutes.
The foul trouble limited Mack to 10 minutes but the Huskers were plus-4 in the first half with him on the floor. Thorbjarnarson led the Huskers with nine points on 3-of-4 from deep.
Nebraska missed its last four 3s of the half after hitting five of its first 11 and shot 7-of-15 on layups and dunks in the first 20 minutes. Nebraska gave up three offensive rebounds in the first three minutes but limited the Scarlet Knights to just two more the rest of the half, but Rutgers still scored 22 points in the paint while shooting 44.1% from the field.
Mack opened the second-half scoring with a 3 but Rutgers responded with a 13-2 run to take its largest lead yet at 51-38, drawing a timeout from Hoiberg. The Scarlet Knights hit five of their first six shots of the half.
Thorbjarnarson connected on a triple, his first since the 10:51 mark of the first half, but Rutgers got back-to-back buckets by Myles Johnson to push the lead to 14. Nebraska made a dent in the deficit with a 5-0 run including a bucket and an assist by Cross, but Haanif Cheatham fouled a 3-point shooter and Yeboah hit all three of them.
Thorbjarnarson made up for Cheatham’s mistake by hitting his fifth 3 of the game. After a bucket inside by the Scarlet Knights, Green and Mack took over and sparked an 18-2 run that gave the Huskers a 67-62 lead with less than six minutes to play.
“Jervay Green was out of the rotation for a stretch and now he's back making really good plays for us,” Hoiberg said. “I thought he was huge in that stretch where we I think had a 16-2 run and ended up taking a lead with under five to go.”
Yeboah finally ended the run with a 3-pointer, but Mack answered with one of his own, a step-back with the shot clock winding down. After a free throw by Rutgers, Mack hit a floater to put Nebraska up six, but Rutgers answered with a pair of triples to tie the game, the second of which was Baker’s first.
Mack played the whole second half and didn’t miss a shot, scoring 16 of his points on 5-of-5 from the field with three triples. Thorbjarnarson and Green combined for 15 in the second half.
“I couldn't be more proud of our guys for the effort that we showed tonight and how we continue to battle back and handle adversity well,” Hoiberg said. “We dug ourselves two double-digit holes, one in the first half where we battled back, and then obviously getting down 14 in the second half, and continue to chip away and keep our poise and not try to get it all back at once, and play for each other and play together. That's what it's all about for our guys.
Nebraska has now dropped five straight games and will look to get off that skid at home on Tuesday against Michigan. Tipoff is set for 6 p.m. at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. 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.