Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Huskers Use Hot Start, Strong Finish to Top Minnesota 78-67

February 25, 2023

The Huskers used a hot start to build a double-digit early then made some clutch plays down the stretch to secure their fourth straight victory, knocking off Minnesota 78-67 at Pinnacle Bank Arena Saturday.

All five starters plus Sam Hoiberg off the bench scored in double figures for the Huskers as Nebraska reached the 70-point threshold for the sixth straight game.

The Huskers (15-14, 8-10 Big Ten) struggled from downtown, shooting 4-for-15, but outscored the Gophers by 20 in the paint and shot 49.2% from the field overall.

Sam Griesel used a big second half to score a game-high 19 points on 50% shooting. C.J. Wilcher scored 12 points without making a 3-pointer and grabbed four rebounds in his third straight start. Jamarques Lawrence set the tone early and finished with 11 points while Sam Hoiberg made some big plays late to match him with 11 of his own.

Keisei Tominaga, with his parents watching him in person at Nebraska for the first time, also scored 11 points on 50% shooting. Oleg Kojenets’ parents also made the trip to Lincoln from Lithuania, and the 7-foot redshirt freshman gave the Huskers six good minutes with Blaise Keita sidelined by his ankle injury.

“It’s really special to be able to play in front of your family … It’s pretty special for those guys to be here for the first time,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Keisei being introduced and getting an incredible ovation, and every time he hits a shot, the crowd goes nuts … When your family is able to come over and witness probably the best stretch that we’ve had here in a while, it makes it great. We’re going to have dinner with both families tomorrow night and they’ll be here, obviously, for the one more game on Tuesday before they head home.”

Derrick Walker struggled to finish against Minnesota’s length with 10 points on 4-for-12 shooting but also led Nebraska with seven rebounds and four assists.

“We need everybody right now with all that we’re facing,” Hoiberg said. “The thing that I’ve been most impressed with this group is they just they don’t panic … I thought Sam H. made some really good plays loose balls got out transition and made his free throws. Really pleased Jamarques was great early; C.J., I thought, was excellent all game long. Just everybody that stepped on the floor contributed and that’s what it’s all about.”

Nebraska held Minnesota (7-20, 1-16) to 40.7% shooting including 33.3% from deep, but the key to the game was the 19 turnovers Nebraska forced, 13 of which were steals. The Huskers converted those turnovers into 21 points on the other end. Griesel credited the coaching staff for the disruptiveness.

“They’re on us every single practice, defensively, having our hands up,” Griesel said. “That was a huge emphasis for us early in the year and that was a big emphasis for this game as well. We kind of brought that back into practice with some drills and stuff like that, but big credit to the coaching staff. Then I honestly think defense is all about your will and we were able to grind it out tonight.”

Nebraska raced out to a 17-8 lead behind a 3-for-3 start including a pair of 3s from Lawrence. The Huskers hit seven of their first 11 shots overall to build the lead.

“It was great to see Jamarques step up,” Hoiberg said. “He’s been working his tail off getting in the gym, getting a lot of shots … I thought he just got us off to a great start. It’s what we needed, and and he stepped up there without any fear, and it was good to see him make some 3s.”

Nebraska pushed its advantage to double figures at 25-14 with a four-point possession featuring a finish through contact from Lawrence and a put-back from Wilhelm Breidenbach on the missed free throw from the freshman.

The Huskers cooled off midway through the half, scoring just six points over a seven-and-a-half-minute stretch, but the defense didn’t slip as Minnesota also scored just six points during that stretch to keep the lead at 11.

Nebraska pushed the lead to 13 with a pair of free throws from Griesel before Battle knocked down a 3. The teams traded buckets in the final minute to make it 37-27 Nebraska at halftime.

The Huskers missed nine of their last 13 shots to shot 53.3% overall in the first half. They scored 22 points in the paint but shot just 2-for-7 from 3 (missing their last five) and 3-for-7 from the free-throw line. 

Lawrence led all scorers with 10 in the half while freshman center Pharrell Payne scored eight points on 4-for-4 shooting off the Gopher bench. Minnesota shot 36.4% from the field and turned the ball over seven times, leading to eight points on the other end. None of Nebraska’s six turnovers resulted in Gopher points.

Nebraska’s offensive struggles continued into the second half as the Huskers missed six of their first seven shots with a turnover, allowing Minnesota to trim the gap to six. Minnesota continued to hang around thanks to Nebraska’s cool shooting.

A 3 from Griesel followed by a three-point play from Sam Hoiberg gave Nebraska its largest lead of the day at 52-38 with 11 minutes to play, but the Gophers countered with a 9-2 run including three straight 3s to cut the deficit in half.

Every time Minnesota made a push, however, Nebraska had an answer, with Griesel and Wilcher leading the way and scoring some big buckets. 

“We knew in the first half we ran some actions that got me open and got me going a little bit in the first half, and then from from that point on it was just my teammates pumping confidence into me,” Griesel said. “That’s what this group is all about. Any night, any of us can have whatever, 15, 20 points; it doesn’t matter. We don’t care who gets the credit, all we all we want is a W at the end of the day.”

The dagger sequence came with just under two minutes to play. Minnesota forced a Walker miss, but Hoiberg tracked down the ball before it went out of bounds and saved it to C.J. Wilcher, who drove in and had it knocked away. Hoiberg got to that one first too and took it in for a layup to put Nebraska back up by 11.

“He’s a gamer,” Griesel said. “He hits big shots too, but a lot of the times it’s the dirty stuff that not everybody wants to do. The last three or four games, he’s been the guy that’s really sealed it for us. That play tonight, that was crazy. But his effort, his will to win, his will for the teammates to succeed is evident in the way that he plays and pushes himself. I’m just so proud of him and we’re going to need him down the stretch.”

Minnesota earned a trip to the line and Pharrell Payne hit both freebies, but Griesel answered with a tough layup then Hoiberg stole the ball and drew a foul, hitting both bonus free throws to put Nebraska up by 13 with less than a minute to play as Nebraska closed out its fifth win in its last six games.

Tominaga put the finishing touched on the win at the free-throw line with 14.3 remaining. Nebraska went 6-for-7 at the foul line in the final minute and 11-for-13 overall in the second half.

The Huskers shot 45.2% from the field in the second half as Griesel led the way with 13 points. Minnesota got hot from deep (5-for-11) while the Huskers continued to struggle (2-for-8), but Nebraska offset that by doubling up the Gophers in the paint (24 to 12) and forcing 12 second-half turnovers. 

Nebraska will close out its three-game home stand on Tuesday with senior night against Michigan State. The Spartans beat Nebraska 74-56 in East Lansing back on Jan. 3.

“I’m excited,” Wilcher said. “For one, it’s Michigan State; we lost to them earlier in the season. But mostly too I’m happy for these guys, the seniors, especially Sam and Derrick. Sam’s from here and Derrick’s been here for the past four years, so I’m just excited for them to get the flowers they deserve.”

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