The Fred Hoiberg era got off to a sluggish start on Wednesday night as Nebraska fell behind 10-2 out of the gates against NAIA Division II Doane in an exhibition game.
Then a familiar face, the only one on the team for Nebraska fans, checked in and breathed some life into the Huskers. Junior wing Thorir Thorbjarnarson led a 9-0 run to give the Huskers their first lead of the game at 11-10.
Millard South alumnus Jaxon Harre hit a step-back jumper to take the lead back for the Tigers, but Nebraska locked up on defense from there and ripped off a 15-0 run to pull ahead 26-12. The Huskers continued to build the lead from there and ran away with the game in the second half for a 91-63 victory at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Thorbjarnarson had 10 points on 5-of-6 shooting, four rebounds and two steals and was plus-29 in 16 minutes. He showed why Hoiberg saw him as a good fit for his system as all of his points came in transition or on back-cuts in the halfcourt.
“It felt great,” Thorbjarnarson said. “We got off to a little slow start but it was probably just the nerves, having not played in PBA for a long time. But it was great.”
Thorbjarnarson was one of five Huskers who scored in double figures led by the team’s only other returner, Dachon Burke. The junior transfer from Robert Morris sat out last season, making Wednesday his first opportunity to play in a real game in front of Nebraska fans. Burke might have been a bit too excited initially, missing his first three shots and turning the ball over twice in less than two-and-a-half minutes before getting a quick yank from Hoiberg.
However, Burke settled down and finished with a game-high 15 points in 14 minutes. He made his last six shots including three 3-pointers.
“I was a little nervous the first couple minutes, I’m not going to lie.,” Burke said. “It was like wow, I waited a year-and-a-half, haven’t played basketball in a year-and-a-half, and it can’t compare to PBA. It felt good out there to play.”
Freshman guard Samari Curtis added 12 points on 4-of-5 shooting (3-of-4 from deep) and five rebounds. Fellow freshman Kevin Cross recorded a double-double with 10 points, 10 rebounds and three assists while senior Haanif Cheatham added 10 points and three assists.
Sophomore point guard Cam Mack only scored five points but orchestrated the offense with eight assists and only one turnover, and he snagged seven rebounds in 23 minutes. Fellow junior college transfer Jervay Green chipped in eight points, five boards and three assists.
The Huskers only shot 8-of-28 (28.6%) from downtown and 11-of-24 (45.8%) from the foul line but they converted 70% of their looks inside the arc and scored 54 points in the paint. The Huskers had 17 fast break points and 18 points off turnovers after taking the ball away 17 times including 12 steals.
“For the first time out in front of the fans, I was pleased for the most part with our approach to this game,” Hoiberg said. “I thought we had a great shoot-around today and a good week of practice coming into this. I thought early on we had some jitters. We dug ourselves into an 8-0 hole, then 10-2. Then we calmed down. I thought Cam really took over the game offensively and I thought Thorir was a difference-maker off the bench. I thought he had some great reads and back cuts. I thought they had a nice little chemistry going on. Kevin Cross I thought had really good first-half minutes for us.”
Anthony Laravie, a junior guard from Omaha North, led the Tigers with 13 points — including eight in the second half — and five rebounds. The Huskers held the Tigers to 35.7% from the field including 25.8% from deep.
Doane converted five of its first six shots as it took the 10-2 lead, but Nebraska held the Tigers to 6-of-24 shooting with 10 turnovers the rest of the half. Green sparked Nebraska’s 15-0 run with a three-point play.
“They stayed with it,” Hoiberg said. “I thought they did a good job. That team had played three games already, so we had a pretty good scouting report on them and I thought they followed it pretty well out there. Again, when you get off to a slow start like you do, you can’t press. You can’t get it all back at once. I thought our guys did a good job of really buckling down on that defensive end. I thought we were much more solid. As we went on, we were getting back. I thought we gave them a couple transition baskets early. We got back to our principles, and once we got those stops, that got us out in transition on offense.”
Burke’s first 3-pointer came at the 6:17 mark after the two teams had combined to miss their first 18 attempts. Cheatham gave the Huskers their biggest lead of the first half at 37-15 with a fast-break layup just before the final first-half media timeout.
The half ended with a flurry of 3-pointers, three by Doane and two by Curtis for Nebraska. The second of those triples came from deep at the top of the key with 1 second on the shot clock, and it gave Nebraska a 43-24 lead at halftime.
Burke came out of the gates firing in the second half, hitting two 3-pointers and a long step-back 2. Nebraska scored on its first six possessions to push Nebraska’s lead to 57-31.
Doane used a 9-0 run to pull within 17 before Curtis ended a nearly four-and-a-half-minute drought from the field with his third 3-pointer of the game which sparked a 20-3 run that pushed Nebraska’s lead to 34. Hoiberg gave his freshmen and walk-ons a chance to close out the game from there and Lincoln Pius X product Charlie Easley scored six points and dished out an assist in the final 6:25.
“The fun thing was to see those guys out there, Charlie, Jace [Piatkowski], Bret Porter, those guys that put so much effort into it on the scout team,” Hoiberg said. “They did a terrific job, I thought, of helping prepare our guys and that’s going to be a job of theirs all year. But it’s fun to see those types of players. My son’s a walk-on and I know how important it is to get them out there and see some good things happen. That was something that was fun for me to see tonight.”
Akol Arop, a scholarship recruit from Omaha Creighton Prep, added five points on a corner 3 and a dunk that pushed Nebraska past the 90-point mark and put an exclamation point on the game.
According to Mack, “things get serious” next Tuesday as Nebraska hosts UC-Riverside in its season-opener.
“Today was a learning experience,” Burke said. “Today was, I feel like, get the jitters out and get comfortable with the atmosphere. Then Tuesday, it’s a business trip. Time to really handle business.”
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.