Friday’s game against Iowa is the final one at Pinnacle Bank Arena this season, which means it is also senior night.
This year, Nebraska will honor seven seniors prior to tipoff: Alonzo Verge Jr., Kobe Webster, Trevor Lakes, Derrick Walker, Trey McGowens, Lat Mayen and walk-on Chris McGraw. The first three will have exhausted their eligibility at the end of the season while the latter four could still choose to return.
That uncertainty was brought about by the 2020-21 eligibility freeze in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s created a different kind of feeling heading into senior night.
“It’s strange,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said. “I mean, my senior day was very emotional. I still remember the night; I couldn’t have played worse. I was 3-for-16, we got beat against Oklahoma and I celebrated by going home and and kicking over a lamp and breaking it. So that was my senior night. But it is different now because of everything that’s going on in our world. When we were there, it was, for me, a very emotional day and you go out there and have so much adrenaline going through your body and then you just have to remind yourself to calm down and go out and play even though it is the last time for a lot of our guys that they’ll step on the floor …
“We’re very appreciative of our fans sticking through a very difficult year for everybody and they continue to come and show up and are positive and cheer for our group. I can’t tell you how much that means, especially when you’re going through tough times, to continue to get that support, and I know our players appreciate it.”
Webster and Walker both participated in Nebraska’s senior night ceremony last season, but that took place in a mostly-empty arena because of the pandemic. This season, they’ll get a chance to celebrate their careers with people in the stands.
“It means a lot, especially our fans, man,” said Verge, the transfer from Arizona State who also experienced a senior night without fans in Tempe last season. “Nebraska has diehard fans, man. I love these fans, they stuck by us the whole season and just support us. So it means a lot to have fans and especially diehard fans that are going to support you.”
After graduating from Arizona State, Verge flirted with going pro before deciding late to transfer to Nebraska, filling the void left by Dalano Banton’s decision to remain in the 2021 NBA Draft. This season has been filled with ups and downs both on the court and off for the Chicago native, but Verge said he learned a lot about himself during this experience.
“It was very interesting,” Verge said. “It showed me just what kind of person I am as a man, just going through adversity as far as basketball-wise. It just helped me realize just to cherish every moment and just work hard every day and not take anything for granted. Don’t take any days for granted. Just like right now, this thing went by so fast. I just looked up and I’m like ‘It’s senior day already.’ So just cherish every day and just staying disciplined. Coach Hoiberg taught me so much, man, just me being here, just being disciplined and just him disciplining me and just helping me grow as a man. So it was a lot.”
Though the wins haven’t come, Verge said he’s mostly gotten what he was hoping for from this season from an individual standpoint as he feels he has grown as a point guard under Hoiberg’s tutelage. He’s averaging 13.7 points on 44.4% shooting, 5.0 assists (third in the Big Ten) and 4.4 rebounds per game this season. Over his past five games, he’s at 13.0 points and 4.4 assists while shooting 53.5% from the field (including 3-of-7 from deep).
“I think, when you look at his numbers, he’s playing his best stretch right now,” Hoiberg said. “You look at his percentages, he’s second in the league in assists really playing point guard for the first time in his career. He was really asked to score the ball in junior college and he played off the ball at Arizona State. So it’s an adjustment, especially when you come to this level, to have to completely shift positions and play with the ball in your hands as much as he has. But it’s good to see the stretch that he’s playing right now, again with his percentages being as high as they are. He’s finished out the year playing, I think, his best basketball. He and I have had a lot of one-on-ones, we’ve had a lot of film sessions and it’s just all about growing at that position, which I think he’s done a good job of.”
Amid the setbacks and criticism that Verge and the Huskers have faced this season, he spoke about the “why’s” that keep him going: his mother, Trisha Moncrief, and his daughter, Nami Sky.
“I have a daughter, she’s 5,” Verge said. “She’s growing real fast and I’m sacrificing not being around her as much just by playing basketball and being here. Anybody wants to be around their kids and in their life. So that’s just something I’ve sacrificed and that’s my why. And my mother, she’s always been there for me since day one. She helped me through everything. So those are just a few of my whys and why I do what I do and why I will never give up.”
Webster chose to return for a fifth season of eligibility and a second season at Nebraska. He found himself out of the rotation early in the season and dealt with a back injury as well, but settled in as the back-up point guard behind Verge. He’s averaged 6.1 points and 1.5 assists per game this season.
Lakes planned to redshirt last season after transferring from the Division II level, but he got a waiver to play midseason since last season didn’t count towards eligibility anyway. He had offseason shoulder surgery, but the issue continued to plague him into the season and he eventually had to shut it down after playing just eight games this season. In total, he played 22 games at Nebraska and scored 57 points.
For the other four, Hoiberg said he’ll sit down with them after the season and discuss their situations, though he said there’s no timeline on their decisions.
Walker is the only player in the program other than walk-on Jace Piatkowski who has been in Lincoln for all three of Hoiberg’s seasons. Even so, because of a variety of circumstances, the transfer from Tennessee has only played in 43 games as a Husker.
“Derrick, he’s been through a lot over the course of his career,” Hoiberg said. “He’s been the one guy that has played in the [NCAA] Tournament, has done everything he can since the day he stepped on campus to try to lead in his first year-and-a-half where he wasn’t able to be on the floor after the redshirt year and the transfer and then the first 15-game suspension where he had to sit out. Obviously we were all very excited when he came back against Indiana that first game last year and then the next morning he tested positive for COVID and then we just went on that stretch where we were shut down for basically a month and had the tough ending with with all the games in a short amount of time. I was proud of that group for how they continued to battle. Derrick was a big part of that with his leadership.”
This season, however, the Kansas City native has been the team’s rock, one of just two players to play in and start every game. He’s averaging 9.2 points on 67.3% shooting, a team-high 5.9 rebounds per game and 1.4 assists per game. He has three double-doubles so far and has scored in double figures 14 times in all. He’s also shooting a career-high 70.8% at the foul line after hitting just 37.9% of his attempts in his first three seasons.
“Really, for the first full year he’s gotten consistent opportunity and he’s had a very efficient season and is certainly one of the bright spots on our team … He’s just a world-class kid, battled a lot, gone through a lot of adversity in his college years,” Hoiberg said. “But I’m proud of him for how he’s continuing to come out in practice, in off days and in games and give everything he has and leave everything on the floor. He’s a warrior, you never hear Derrick complain about anything and he’s got a bright future ahead.”
This season has been a rocky one for Trey McGowens. He was looking forward to playing with his younger brother Bryce for the first time since they were small children. That lasted less than three games before Trey broke his foot, sidelining him for two months. He returned in mid-January and has played in the last nine games.
The older McGowens hasn’t quite gotten on track offensively this season, averaging a career-low 6.3 points per game, but he his defensive impact was apparent as soon as he stepped back on the floor and he’s third on the team in free-throw attempts despite playing in just 12 games.
“When you look back at our season, just how much we missed Trey in some of those close losses that we had early, and you can just see it by the individual performances that some of the better wings in our league had against us that, with Trey’s ability to guard, probably wouldn’t have happened,” Hoiberg said. “You look even going back to NC State, with [Dereon] Seabron going out and having over 30 in that game and then you give [Malaki] Branham 35 in this building in a game you lose in overtime. So there are multiple occasions where if had Trey stayed healthy, I think we could have gotten over the hump. Obviously can’t guarantee it, but it’s what Trey means to this team with his toughness and his ability to defend some of the top players.
“He did an unbelievable job on Johnny Davis, especially in that first half where he held him scoreless. That’s hard to do against a guy like that. So we missed him. I’m proud of him for as engaged as he stayed during those couple months where he was off the floor. I just love the kid. He’s all about the right things.”
Mayen has started and played in every game but one this season, though he’s struggled to regain his shooting touch from a season ago. After leading the team in 3s made and shooting 34.8% last year, Mayen has made just 29.1% of his s and is averaging 5.5 points per game this season. Perhaps his finest moment as a Husker came in Nebraska’s senior night a season ago as he scored a career-high 25 points and shot 5-of-7 from 3 in twin over Rutgers.
McGraw joined Nebraska after one season as a walk-on at Ohio and a redshirt year at Division III Otterbein. He sat out last season and contributed on the scout team. This year, he appeared in eight games and recorded one assist. He still has two season of basketball eligibility remaining but is a senior academically.
Senior night ceremonies are tentatively scheduled to begin around 7:40 p.m. CT at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Friday night ahead of the 8 p.m. tipoff against the Hawkeyes.
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.