One stop for overtime. One bucket for the win.
Nebraska went 0-for-2 on those possessions against North Dakota and will head into the holiday break with a 5-7 record including three buy-game losses at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
From the opening tip, the Huskers lacked the energy that carried them to a win over Purdue their last time out and ended up trailing for nearly 34 minutes in a 75-74 loss to the Fighting Hawks (6-7) on Saturday evening.
“I thought we had a good week of prep,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said. “I really did. I thought our guys went out there with a great approach and had good practices. Had a great shoot-around this morning, very similar I thought to what we had against Purdue. I thought we would come out and play with great energy. But for whatever reason we didn’t. And sometimes in life you get exactly what you deserve and that’s what happened with this game.”
A late surge by Nebraska tied the game up with just over 30 seconds to play. With a three-second differential between the game and shot clock, the Fighting Hawks couldn’t hold it for a buzzer-beating attempt.
North Dakota got into its action with 10 on the clock as leading scorer Marlon Stewart passed it off to a teammate and then got it back on a hand-off. Both defenders stayed with Stewart, opening up the pass to a wide open teammate on the wing who swung the ball to the corner as the help defender rotated over. In scramble-mode, a defender tried to close out to the corner and got blown by, leading to a foul at the rim.
De’Sean Allen-Eikens hit the first free throw to take the lead with 7.3 to play and Hoiberg called a timeout to draw something up. Out of the break, Allen-Eikens missed the second shot, Dachon Burke Jr. grabbed the rebound and took off up the court before firing up a step-back jumper that hit hard off the iron.
Jervay Green is back for the #Huskers after what amounted to a two-game suspension for a violation of team rules. He’ll come off the bench today. pic.twitter.com/d4PiCBpy65
— Jacob Padilla (@JacobPadilla_) December 21, 2019
“We drew up a play thinking they were going to get two,” Burke said. “He made one, missed one, there was 5 seconds left, I got the rebound, took a shot and missed.”
Hoiberg, who still had one timeout left but elected to save it, said the play in the huddle was to get the ball to Mack and let him attack, but the ball bounced Burke’s way instead.
Nebraska came alive offensively in the second half to shoot 47.5% from the field overall including 9-of-21 (42.9%) from 3, but the team’s free-throw problem reared its ugly head again as the Huskers shot 9-of-16 at the charity stripe.
Mack led the Huskers with 19 points on 7-of-9 shooting (3-of-5 from 3), seven assists and seven rebounds. Matej Kavas broke out of his shooting slump with 12 points on 4-of-5 from deep while Burke and Haanif Cheatham chipped in 10 points apiece (though Burke did it on 12 shots). Jervay Green made his return from a suspension after missing two games, putting up three points, four rebounds and two assists in 15 minutes.
The Fighting Hawks shot 47.5% overall as well with 11 3-pointers. Stewart, who spent his freshman year at Creighton before transferring to North Dakota and put up 20 points against the Huskers with the Fighting Hawks in 2017, finished with a game-high 23 points on 9-of-15 shooting and four assists. Three other Hawks scored in double-figures as well. North Dakota freshman Brady Danielson, a York, Nebraska, native, hit a 3 and grabbed two rebounds in 18 minutes.
Like it was on the last defensive possession, communication and recognition was a problem for the Huskers all game.
“When you come out and you don’t close out to the shooters the way you need to, you allow the guys that have to bounce it to shoot it,” Hoiberg said. “Again, that’s where those guys get their confidence going. When we had our pick-and-roll coverage, about four or five times we pushed them the wrong way. That’s a communication error and a communication gap. And again I have seen growth in that area, but we took a step back tonight.”
The two sides traded buckets early with North Dakota taking a 10-8 lead into the first media timeout. After the break, Green checked in, grabbed a board, pushed it up the floor and fed freshman Kevin Cross Jr. for a layup to tie it up.
However, the Fighting Hawks pulled ahead with a 7-0 run as Nebraska’s offense continued to struggle. Cross ended the run with a tough three-point play inside and Nebraska held North Dakota scoreless for over two minutes, forcing five straight misses, but the Huskers couldn’t cut into the deficit any on the other end. Filip Rebraca ended North Dakota’s drought with a bucket inside, muscling Cross out of the way.
After Mack and Stewart traded strong takes to the basket, Burke scored back-to-back buckets including a breakaway slam to cut the deficit to two. Stewart hit a step-back long 2 at the end of the shot clock to snap another North Dakota scoring drought, but Mack answered with a 3-pointer to cut it to one.
North Dakota hit its fourth triple of the half to push it back to four, but Matej Kavas splashed one of his own. The Fighting Hawks stretched the lead back out from there, however, holding the Huskers scoreless for 3:11 of game time and and scoring a couple of buckets inside to make it 30-25. The sides played to a draw over the final three minutes of the half to give North Dakota a 35-30 lead at the break.
Mack led the Huskers with 10 points on 4-of-6 from the field, but the rest of the team only mustered 20 points on 22 shots. Overall, Nebraska shot 42.9% from the field including 2-of-9 from 3.
North Dakota shot 48.4% from the field and 5-of-14 from 3. Stewart and Rebraca, the team’s leading scorers, put up 11 and 13 points, respectively, in the first half on 11-of-16 shooting.
Nebraska again cut the deficit to one early in the second half, but again North Dakota had an answer, knocking down two 3-pointers to push the lead to seven, tying its biggest advantage of the game. Cross hit a 3-pointer for Nebraska then dropped a dime to Thorir Thorbjarnarson for a layup to make it a one-score game, but the Huskers gave up a layup on the next play.
Twice North Dakota pulled ahead by eight, and after the second time Nebraska switched to a 2-3 zone and got a couple of stops, sparking an 8-0 run that tied the game up with 5:48 to play. The Huskers switched back to man-to-man after giving up an offensive board and Stewart drove in for an and-one to take back the lead.
“We did go to the zone, it got us a couple stops, and then we had a couple possessions were they got us on it, so we went back to the man,” Hoiberg said. “Again, we had a couple good defensive possessions, we just couldn’t secure the rebound.”
The two sides went bucket-for-bucket, stop-for-stop down the stretch until Burke stepped up with a couple of big plays, driving in for a tough layup then getting into the paint and kicking it out to Kavas for a 3 and Nebraska’s first lead since 8-7.
North Dakota took the lead right back with a put-back plus the foul from Allen-Eikens for a 72-71 advantage. Burke missed the front end of the bonus on the other end and the Hawks got another second-chance bucket as Allen-Eikens tipped the rebound to a teammate for the layup.
The Huskers got the ball to Mack to make a play and he fired away from deep to tie it up, setting up the final sequence.
“I feel like everybody just needs to look themselves in the mirror and ask if they want to play,” Mack said in the post-game, the disappointment and frustration clear on his face. “Period. Are you going to play or not? You can’t take games off. Fixing to start Big Ten play; you think teams are going to come here and play with us? No. We’ve just got to come to play.”
The Huskers will have to think about this loss over the holiday break. They won’t return to the court until Dec. 29 when they close out the nonconference slate against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.
“It’s going to be a painful couple days, there’s no doubt about it. For my family’s sake, I have to try to let it go and try to enjoy what the holiday season is all about. But it is frustrating, it’s very frustrating. I hope it stings, I hope it hurts our guys. I hope they do get to enjoy their families — they don’t get enough of that, all of us in this business don’t get enough of it — so we’ll try to enjoy it but when we get back, it’s go time. We have to get back at it and hopefully come out and play better next week.”
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.