Nebraska opened tournament play in the Cayman Islands Classic with an 82-71 win over Washington State on Monday night.
After a sluggish first half, the Huskers picked it up in the second and raced by the Cougars to improve to 3-2 on the year. Washington State (2-3) feasted on the offensive glass in the first half but the Huskers tightened things up in the second and pulled away. Junior guard Jervay Green said rebounding was the key to victory.
“Obviously we’ve been struggling this year with rebounding but once we got the boards we were able to out-run this team … We started off real slow, but once again after we got the rebounds, they couldn’t run with us,” Green said.
Senior guard Haanif Cheatham led the Huskers with a season-high 19 points on 8-of-10 shooting (2-of-3 from 3) and seven rebounds while also defending Washington State’s best player most of the night.
Green had 16 points on 5-of-9 from the field, 3-of-5 from deep and 3-of-4 from the line with eight rebounds and two assists. Freshman forward Kevin Cross Jr. provided a spark off the bench with 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting (2-of-4 from 3) and eight rebounds. Junior Dachon Burke Jr. added 14 points and five boards while sophomore point guard Cam Mack chipped in 10 points, eight rebounds, six assists and three steals.
Free-throw problems persisted as Nebraska shot 52% (13-of-25) but the Huskers were efficient elsewhere, shooting 52.6% from the field including 50% (9-of-18) from 3. Nebraska held the Cougars to 37% shooting including 22.2% (6-of-27) from deep.
Washington State sophomore star CJ Elleby opened the scoring with a 3 on Washington State’s first possession but Nebraska responded with a 10-2 run including five points from Cheatham. The Cougars pulled even at 12-12 before Cross, who checked in early after a slow start by freshman Yvan Ouedraogo, knocked down a 3 then found Cheatham under the basket for a layup.
After another bucket by Elleby, Burke drilled a 3 to give Nebraska a 20-14 lead. The Cougars responded with five straight before another Nebraska triple. After trading buckets, Washington State ripped off a 10-0 run to take a 31-25 lead.
The Huskers scored six of the next eight points to make it 33-31 Washington State with 4:48 to play in the half before both sides went ice cold. Washington State mustered four more points while the Huskers only scored three, giving the Cougars a 37-34 lead at halftime.
Both teams shot 14-of-32 from the field and made four 3-pointers. The free-throw line was the difference as Nebraska only shot 2-of-7 at the stripe with a couple of missed front ends in the bonus. Washington State was only a little better at 5-of-9, but that was enough for a halftime lead. After hitting four of their first six 3-point attempts, the Huskers missed their last five. Washington State outscored Nebraska 14-0 in second-chance points despite only earning a 7-4 edge in offensive rebounds.
Cross led Nebraska with nine points on 4-of-6 shooting and five rebounds. Elleby scored 13 points in nine minutes before picking up his second foul and spending the rest of the half on the bench.
Green said Coach Fred Hoiberg’s message at halftime was simple: stick together.
“You could see that we were coming apart a little bit,” Green said. “We were getting frustrated. Coach, he kept his cool — you know, Coach Fred, he keeps his cool all the time. He told us to go out there, rebound, play defense and, mostly, have fun.”
Ouedraogo scored inside to open the second half, but Elleby responded with a three-point play, drawing Mack’s third foul in the process. The Huskers settled in defensively from there, using a 7-0 run (including a banked 3 by Green) to take a 43-40 lead.
Washington State converted a put-back after shooting 1-of-10 from the field to start the half, but Nebraska tacked on six more to take a 49-42 lead. Elleby converted another three-point play to pull Washington State within four but Nebraska pushed the lead to nine with a 7-2 run capped by a deep 3 late in the shot clock by Green.
Washington answered with a four-point play by Elleby on the other end to make it 56-51, but Cheatham hit a 3 of his own on the ensuing play which sparked a 13-2 run that gave the Huskers a 69-53 lead with less than eight minutes to go.
The Cougars made a push with back-to-back buckets including a three-point play, but the Huskers responded with five straight of their own to push the lead back to 16 with two minutes to go. That cushion proved to be enough for the Huskers to close out the game despite a few turnovers, missed free throws and a bizarre technical foul down the stretch.
After scoring just two points in the first half, Green came alive in the second to lead the Huskers with 14 after halftime.
“I was real frustrated in the first; there were some fouls that were not called so I was getting mad at myself because I’m trying to help my teammates so we could win this game,” Green said. “Things weren’t going my way so I was getting frustrated. My teammates, they just kept telling me to shoot the ball and whatever happens happens. They believe in me and that just gave me confidence. I hit the first 3 and it went on from there.”
The Huskers shot 64% from the field (including 5-of-7 from deep) in the second half and held the Cougars to 31.7%. Nebraska limited Washington State to just six second-chance points on eight offensive rebounds,
Elleby finished with 27 points on 9-of-21 from the field and 7-of-7 from the foul line. The rest of the Cougars combined for 44 points on 18-of-52 from the field and 4-of-9 from the line.
The win advances Nebraska in the winner’s bracket to face George Mason on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. CT. The Patriots beat Old Dominion 60-53 in the first round behind a combined 37 points for Javon Greene and AJ Wilson. The game will once again be streamed at FloHoops.com, which requires a subscription. The Husker Sports Network will also carry the radio broadcast with Kent Pavelka and Jake Muhleisen.
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.