Nebraska has faced a deficit of 14 or more points in seven straight games and it has lost all seven of them. However, in the first six, the Huskers showed some reasons for optimism, putting together long stretches of quality play or rallying in the second half to make the final score respectable.
That wasn’t the case in the seventh, at least not for the main rotation guys. For the first time since the Rutgers loss on Jan. 3, Nebraska got run off the floor in the second half and couldn’t find a way to stop the onslaught on Saturday night as Penn State secured its first ever win at Pinnacle Bank Arena, 76-64.
The Huskers (7-15, 2-9 Big Ten) didn’t cut into the lead in any meaningful way until Fred Hoiberg went deep into his bench in the final seven minutes.
Haanif Cheatham and Thorir Thorbjarnarson did their best to put the team on their backs with a combined 27 points on 9-of-17 from the field, 4-of-6 from 3 and 5-of-9 from the line with 13 rebounds, but they didn’t get much help.
The other three starters and the first three players off the bench combined for 25 points on 10-of-39 shooting. That included Cam Mack, who came off the bench for the third time this season after showing up three minutes late to a film session. He went scoreless for the first time at Nebraska, missing all six of his shots with three assists and three turnovers, and he certainly didn’t make up for his offensive struggles on the other end.
Dachon Burke Jr. was Nebraska’s third-leading scorer with 11 points but it took him a team-high 15 shot attempts to do it. Fresh off a 17-point outing, freshman Kevin Cross Jr. shot 2-for-8 from the field for five points and didn’t exactly give his best effort on defense.
Nebraska raced out to a 9-2 lead after hitting its first three 3-pointers (two from Cheatham and one from Thorbjarnarson) and the Huskers led 13-7 at the first media timeout with Cheatham stepping up in Mack’s absence, scoring 10 of the points by himself and assisting on Thorbjarnarson’s 3.
But the Huskers gradually cooled off while Penn State (16-5, 6-4) forged ahead, using a 9-0 run to take a 27-20 lead. Burke showed some initiative, scoring seven straight Nebraska points during a 9-3 run to cut the deficit down to one. Penn State pushed it back to eight late in the half, but again Nebraska answered with a three-point play from Thorbjarnarson and a defensive stop to make it 38-33 at halftime.
“I thought in the first half we came out and got off to a great start,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said. “I thought we battled through a tough stretch, continued to hang in there, weathered the storm, cut the deficit to five going into halftime. We go 4-for-11 from the free throw line [in the first half]; if we make three more free throws, we’re down two at the break. Still, five is a manageable number, and I thought we had a little momentum going in because we didn’t play our best basketball going into the half but it was still only a two-possession game.”
For whatever reason, however, Nebraska left all that momentum in the locker room when it came back out for the second half. The Nittany Lions outscored the Huskers 32-13 over the first 13 minutes t0 build the lead up to 24.
“We come out in the second half with the same group of guys, same team, and give energy like we had been and then lay an egg for the first three, four minutes of the half,” Hoiberg said. “Now we’re down 13 all of a sudden. They go on an 8-0 run to start the half. We have to find a way to be—I say this every week—to be consistent. The one thing I think that has been there is the effort. I’ve been pleased with the guys coming out and their approach, going out there and leaving it all out on the floor. Tonight, that wasn’t the case. I feel sick about it, in our home building with an unbelievable crowd, to go out there and have that type of thing happen.
“You have to find a way to compete for 40 minutes. We did for the first 20, and then that second half, you see heads hanging and I’m battling frustration with the guys, there’s no question about that, with everything we’re going through with the losing streak. But it’s no excuse to not go out there and play your ass off and compete all the way to the final buzzer, whether things are going your way or you’re struggling out there. It has to be a consistent effort every time we take the floor for 40 minutes and that was not the case tonight.”
The first real signs of life came from grad transfer Matej Kavas, who entered a game for the first time since Jan. 18 against Indiana at the 7:57 mark and played the rest of the way. he scored eight points on 3-of-4 shooting (2-of-3 from 3), grabbed two rebounds and dished out two assists.
Charlie Easley, who started for Mack, got two steals late, hitting the ground for one of them. Freshman forward Akol Arop checked in at the 3:07 mark and scored the first two buckets of his career, converting a layup off a drive and throwing down a dunk on a pass from Easley. He also recorded two rebounds, an assist and a steal.
The units led by the trio of Kavas, Easley and Arop cut the lead in half in the final seven minutes.
“I was proud of those guys,” Hoiberg said. “They went out and fought, diving on the floor. I liked Akol’s energy out there. I told ‘em, ‘We have a week to figure this thing out: Who wants to be on the floor?’ I’m going to put my competitive players on the floor. It’s a big week for us, heading into next week. It’s not going to happen again, where I see the guys out there and hanging their heads and not playing with the type of energy that we need to, especially in this building in front of these fans. They give us too much, they support us too much to do that to them. It makes me sick that we played like that in front of our great fans.”
Hoiberg will have some time to tinker with lineups and try to figure some things out as Nebraska doesn’t have another game until next Saturday at Iowa. The Huskers will have all week to get after it in practice.
“I’m excited about it,” Hoiberg said. “Our players better be too because we’re going to get after it. It’s going to be a hard, competitive week of practice. Again, my competitors that show me they want to be on the floor, they’re going to be on the floor.”
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.