The adversity continues to mount for Nebraska as the Huskers fell against Southern Utah in double-overtime, 79-78, at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Saturday.
This is the first time Nebraska has lost its first two games of a season since 1987.
The Huskers’ shooting woes continued as they shot 37% from the field, 19.2% (5-of-26) from 3 and 65.5% (19-29) from the free-throw line. The Thunderbirds weren’t much better, shooting 40.8% overall and making just four 3s all game, but they got their final shot to fall and that proved to be the difference.
“I just think we didn’t execute,” junior guard Jervay Green said. “But as the weeks go on, and we get back to the drawing board we are going to fix all of that. We’ve just got to execute.”
Southern Utah spent most of the game in an extended 2-3 zone that baffled the Huskers for most of the afternoon as Nebraska never found a way to sustain offensive success.
“I thought our guys really went out and competed today,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said. “I thought we got off to a great start. I really challenged them the last couple days to put that last frustrating loss on Tuesday behind us, and I thought our guys responded with great energy.
“They kind of took over the tempo game when they went to the press, to the zone. We struggled to execute against it, and that’s something when you see it for the the first time, we obviously do it a lot in practice and run against it, but we don’t have that type of length to simulate that type of zone. When we did have good movement I thought it created good shots. I thought our guys did a good job in the back line of cutting in there to get some shots at the rim.”
After a rough Nebraska debut against UC Riverside, freshman forward Kevin Cross led Nebraska with 19 points on 8-of-15 shooting. He played 36 minutes including all but the final 11 seconds of the two overtimes.
“I thought he was one of the best players on the floor for us,” Hoiberg said. “He was finishing, he’s got a good feel in the middle of that zone … I’ll say this about Kevin, he’s really bought into everything about getting his body right, and he he could not have done this a couple weeks ago. He’s worked hard with Coach [Tim] Wilson, our strength coach. He’s bought into putting the right things in his body so he can play sustained minutes like he did tonight.”
Green added 18 points including a clutch shot at the end of regulation to send it to overtime, but he shot just 6-of-18 from the field including 2-of-8 from deep. He also grabbed eight rebounds and three steals.
Sophomore point guard Cam Mack had a double-double with 14 points, 11 assists, seven rebounds, two steals and a block but shot 5-of-14 from the field, 0-of-6 from 3 and 3-of-6 from the foul line. Junior guard Dachon Burke Jr. had 13 points on 4-of-10 shooting and four rebounds.
Southern Utah had five double-digit scorers led by forward Dwayne Morgan with 19 points and 11 rebounds. The Thunderbirds edged out Nebraska 15 to 10 in offensive rebounds and nine to three in second chance points.
Nebraska got off to a slow start, missing four of its first five shots with a turnover as Southern Utah took a 4-2 lead a few minutes into the game. Freshman big man Yvan Ouedraogo got the Huskers going with a bucket inside, sparking a 10-2 run as Nebraska made four of its next five shots and its first two free throws.
Down 12-6, Southern Utah switched to the 2-3 zone which gave Nebraska all sorts of issues. The Huskers missed four 3s, a floater and a jumper from the elbow as the Thunderbirds tied the game up at 12-12.
Thorbjarnarson checked in from there and changed the game, knocking down Nebraska’s first 3 of the game from the corner then cutting to the rim for a foul and hitting both free throws during a 7-0 run.
Southern Utah snapped the run from the free-throw line, but Thorbjarnarson answered with a layup on another cut, then Green scored five straight with a 3 and a breakaway dunk off a steal. Cross knocked down a pull-up jumper from the free-throw line to cap a 9-0 run and give the Huskers a 28-14 lead. The Thunderbirds missed 14 straight shots as the offensive spark seemed to give the Huskers some life on the defensive end as well.
Maizen Fausset knocked down Southern Utah’s first 3 of the game (after the Thunderbirds had missed their first 11 attempts), but the under-4 timeout followed and Cross knocked down a 3 of his own out of the break.
Southern Utah made five of its last six shots of the half, pulling within nine, but Nebraska held for the final shot and let Cross attack from the middle of the floor. He scored inside, capping an 11-point half and giving Nebraska a 37-26 lead at halftime. Cross scored nine of Nebraska’s last 11 points.
“They kind of started off the same way that Riverside did the other night,” Hoiberg said. “They backed off him and kind of gave him shots. I give Kevin a lot of credit; if I would have shot that airball after a tough first night, I don’t know if I would have shot the ball again. I probably would have crawled into a hole. But Kevin did a good job continuing to be aggressive, finding his spots. He went right at their big guy and had some really good finishes in there. I’m proud of the way he went out there and battled.”
The second half got off to a strange start with three turnovers from each team while Nebraska’s first seven points came on two free throws, a banked 3 and a goal-tended layup, pushing Nebraska’s lead to 12 at the first media timeout of the second half.
Nebraska went scoreless for nearly three minutes as Southern Utah cut the deficit to seven before Haanif Cheatham converted his first field goal as a Husker on a feed from Mack. The offensive woes continued from there as Southern Utah gradually worked its way back into the game, cutting it all the way down to one at 54-53 at the under-8 timeout after a 6-0 run.
Mack took over with a personal 6-2 run featuring three tough buckets.
“He had a stretch where he was just incredible,” Hoiberg said about Mack. “He completely took over the game and that’s what he’s capable of doing. He’s got great speed, he’s got great instincts. Getting into the paint, he’s got good pace to where he can get a guy on his hip and make the right play. To go out there in his second game at this level and almost put a triple-double on the board is pretty impressive. He may have had it had he not gotten in foul trouble in that first half. I’m really pleased with how Cam is playing right now.”
A layup by Green rimmed out and the ball pin-balled all the way down to the other end before finding its way into the hands of a Thunderbird for a layup. After trading scores, Southern Utah scored six in a row capped by a 3-pointer from Dre Marin with just under two minutes to play to give the Thunderbirds their first lead since 4-2.
Mack quickly answered for the Huskers with a layup, but after two empty possessions Southern Utah got to the foul line and Morgan hit both to put the Thunderbirds back in front with 16.5 to play. Mack drew a foul on the other end with 5.2 on the clock but missed both free throws. Nebraska fouled Morgan on the rebound and he hit both again with 4.7 to play to make it a three-point game. Nebraska got the ball in to Mack and he pushed it up the floor, finding Green on the wing for a deep 3-pointer as time expired.
“A great point guard gave me the ball,” Green said. “I saw the time was going down and just shot it, and made it.”
The first overtime was ugly for both teams. Mack split a pair of free throws with 2:53 to tie it at 72-all and that proved to be the final point scored in the period. Nebraska had the ball with 32 seconds left and Hoiberg drew up a play to pick apart the zone for a lob, but Mack and Green couldn’t quite connect to finish it off.
“I thought we had a good play drawn up there at the end, the lob to Jervay, but unfortunately we just didn’t finish it,” Hoiberg said. “Give our guys credit for going out and executing, just couldn’t quite finish off that play. The competitive spirit of this group was where it needed to be today, and it’s something we can build on and hopefully have a great week of practice hiding into our game next Friday.”
On the other end, Marin missed a shot off the glass to send it to a second overtime. Both teams shot 1-of-5 from the field with two turnovers in the extra period.
Morgan split a pair of free throws on Southern Utah’s first possession and nearly three minutes of scoreless basketball followed before Mack found Green on a cut for the go-ahead layup. On the other end, Cross blocked a shot, igniting the break for Nebraska which resulted in a trip to the free-throw line by Burke who made both to put Nebraska up three with 1:28 to play.
Morgan hit a pair of free throws for Southern Utah, but Cross answered with a bucket inside off a pass from Burke. Harrison Butler got a quick dunk to pull the Thunderbirds within one. Nebraska ran the clock down before settling for a deep 3 from Mack but he missed, giving Southern Utah the ball back with 11.8 to play. Southern Utah swung the ball and a bad closeout led to a pull-up jumper by Cameron Oluyitan, and he drilled it with 3.5 on the clock.
Nebraska got the ball into Mack’s hands and he took it the length of the floor but couldn’t get a tough shot at the buzzer to fall, sealing the Huskers’ second straight loss to open the season.
“It looks like they created a long closeout and we flew by on that last shot where he knocked down about a 15, 16-footer,” Hoiberg said. “Then I thought we executed very well coming out. Cam got a good look at the rim. It’s tough with that amount of time, 3.5 seconds. We talk about it being a long time, that’s a play we practice, and I thought he really did a good job of getting up the floor and getting to the rim. Unfortunately, we didn’t finish it off, but Cam I thought made a good play, a good read; it just unfortunately didn’t go in.”
Nebraska will return to Pinnacle Bank Arena on Friday to host South Dakota State for an 8 p.m. tipoff on BTN.
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.