Huskers' Pack-the-Paint Strategy Delivers a Win over Iowa
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Huskers’ Pack-the-Paint Strategy Delivers a Win over Iowa

January 08, 2020

The last time the Iowa Hawkeyes came to Pinnacle Bank Arena, the Huskers pulled off a come-from-behind overtime victory on senior night that featured a walk-on flying all over the court for the Huskers.

On Tuesday night, Nebraska got another big boost off the bench from a walk-on and this time it controlled the action most of the way en route to a 76-70 win over a short-handed Hawkeyes squad. The Huskers have won four straight against the Hawkeyes at the Vault while Coach Fred Hoiberg improved to 5-1 against the Hawkeyes in his career.

Nebraska (7-8, 2-2 Big Ten) led for nearly 38 minutes and had five players score in double figures in a bounce-back performance after Nebraska failed to score a win over a Rutgers team missing its leading scorer last Friday. Iowa was down to seven scholarship players with starting guard CJ Fredrick sidelined with a stress reaction in his foot and this time Nebraska took advantage.

"It was exactly what we worked on the last few days,” Holberg said about his team’s physicality and intensity. “The guys went out and really bought into the game plan and believed in it. We really tried to pack the paint. We felt our only chance of winning the game was to sit two or three bodies in the paint at all times and then closeout to the shooters, and we did a good job at that … I am really proud of the guys. We had a great film session. I know we had a great film session after Creighton and bounced back with some good efforts, but for the guys to come out and play with that type of intensity and effort after a disappointing last home game says a lot about our guys. Hopefully it’s one we can build on." 

Hoiberg chose to shorten his rotation as well, playing just eight players including just seven in the second half. That rotation included freshman walk-on Charlie Easley in place of junior Jervay Green.

Easley missed all three of his 3-point attempts and split a pair of free throws to finish with one point in 16 minutes, but he also recorded two steals, wrestled a rebound away from a 6-foot-10 Hawkeye and dished out an assist. He hit the ground multiple times chasing after loose balls.

"It was just a decision I made before the game,” Hoiberg said. “Went back to the rotation where we played two of our better games of the season against Purdue and against Indiana and had a talk with [Green] before the game that that was the direction that I was going to go in this one. Again, the guys went out there and I thought everybody that stepped on the floor made a contribution tonight. I thought Charlie Easley made some unbelievable hustle plays. That play where he dove on the floor was the loudest it got in the building all night. But Charlie, even though he didn't hit his shots, I thought had a huge impact on that win and again made unbelievable hustle plays out there." 

Thorir Thorbjarnarson led the way for Nebraska, tying his career-high of 17 points. He shot 6-of-9 from the field including 3-of-6 from deep, corralled nine rebounds and notched two steals in 36 minutes. Sophomore point guard Cam Mack recorded his fourth double-digit assist game of the season, finishing with 15 points and 10 assists to just one turnover while playing all but 36 seconds.

Haanif Cheatham had 14 points and six rebounds, Dachon Burke Jr. scored 13 points on 5-of-8 shooting and Kevin Cross Jr. added 11 points and five rebounds off the bench.

Iowa scored 52 points in the paint and converted 19 offensive rebounds into 17 second-chance points but the Huskers outscored Iowa by 18 points from the 3-point line and 12 points from the free-throw line. Nebraska shot 10-of-26 (38.5%) from 3 while the Hawkeyes made just four of their 33 attempts (a season-low 12.1%). Nebraska only shot 14-of-26 from the foul line (53.8%) but Iowa took just five free throws all game, making two of them.

Iowa’s All-America candidate at center, Luka Garza, put up 16 points and 18 rebounds but shot just 7-of-15 from the field while his running mate, sophomore Joe Wieskamp, took 23 shots to score 21 points. As a team, Iowa scored 70 points on 77 field-goal attempts.

“I think we did pretty good,” Thorbjarnarson said. “It also helped that they went and started 1-of-15 from three and ended 4-of-33. That also helped a lot. They weren’t in the rhythm, and we were making shots. I think our emphasis on letting certain guys shoot and packing the paint, closing out the guards, I think the game plan went perfectly. They had one run in the second half where I think they got up one. I think we led the rest of the way so I think we did a really good job not letting them back in the game.”

Nebraska jumped out to a 7-0 lead to start the game culminating in an early technical on Iowa coach Fran McCaffrey after a travel on Ryan Kriener, but Cheatham missed both free throws and Yvan Ouedraogo traveled himself, giving the ball back to the Hawkeyes. 

Iowa tied it up at 7-all and 9-all, but 3s by Mack (his second) and Haanif Cheatham put the Huskers up 15-12 at the under-12 timeout. The Hawkeyes missed 10 of their first 11 3-pointers and only attempted four shots inside the arc in the first eight minutes.

Nebraska continued to control the action and the Hawkeyes continued to fire blanks. Nebraska extended its run to 12-2 for a 23-11 lead as Iowa missed six more 3-point attempts.

Iowa started to get going on offense, using a 9-2 run to cut the deficit to five before a 3 by Thorbjarnarson put the Huskers back up 28-20. The Hawkeyes stopped settling for jumpers and started pounding it inside from there, however, cutting it to three on a pair of deep-post buckets by Garza including a three-point play. 

Nebraska responded with an 8-0 run including a stop inside against Garza, 3s by Cross and Cheatham and a put-back by Cheatham to push the lead back to 11. Iowa scored the last two buckets of the half to make it 38-31 at the break.

Iowa doubled up Nebraska 20-10 in points in the paint in the first half but the Hawkeyes only shot 2-of-19 from 3 while the Huskers shot 7-of-16 led by Cheatham who hit all three of his triples and scored 13 points.

Iowa attacked the rim early and often to start the second half, scoring its first 10 points in the paint to cut Nebraska’s lead to two before Mack scored two tough buckets of his own in the paint. 

Connor McCaffery hit a 3 to spark a 10-3 Iowa run capped by a Wieskamp 3 (his first of the game after seven misses) that gave Iowa its first lead at 51-50. The lead didn’t last long, however, as Cross scored four straight including a buzzer-beating layup off a pretty pass from Mack after the point guard crossed up an Iowa big man and dished it off.

Nebraska pushed the lead to five with a layup by Thorbjarnarson and a dunk by Cross, both off passes from Mack, but the Hawkeyes tied it up from there. Thorbjarnarson took over from there, knocking down a pair of 3s before Cross hit a pair of free throws to give Nebraska a 67-61 lead with less than three minutes to play.

A layup by Mack pushed the lead to seven with 1:47 to play but the Huskers left the door open by continuing to struggle at the free-throw line. Iowa cut it down to four with 65 seconds remaining but after a timeout, Mack went deep to Burke on the in-bound pass for a dunk, Nebraska got a stop and Thorbjarnarson hit a pair of free throws as the Huskers salted the game away to get back to .500 in league play.

Burke scored 11 points in the second half after foul trouble limited him to 10 minutes in the first.

“I love my team,” Burke said. “The coaches believe in me. My teammates. I have the best teammates in the country. My last two games weren’t really my best so I’ve just been staying in the gym, staying confident, watching film, just doing a little extra. Tonight it showed. My coaches and teammates believed in me. My confidence remained and our team got the win.”

The Huskers will it the road this weekend for a Saturday afternoon clash with Northwestern. Tipoff is set for 3:30 p.m. on BTN. 

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