Photo by Eric Francis
Nebraska Basketball

First Half Woes Too Much for Huskers to Overcome Against Creighton

December 7, 2019
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Creighton point guard Marcus Zegarowski scored a layup on a simple back-cut at the 6:35 mark of the first half, drawing a quick timeout from Fred Hoiberg.

When play resumed, Matej Kavas missed a 3 halfway through the shot clock and Creighton pushed the ball right back up the court for a dunk by Christian Bishop. Hoiberg immediately called another timeout, walking out on the court with his arms raised.

“I wanted to take eight more in the next eight possessions, but I didn’t have them,” Hoiberg said. “You only get five.”

The dunk put Creighton up 37-7, harkening back to Creighton’s 38-8 lead against Nebraska in Omaha in 2013. Cam Mack broke a four-and-a-half minute scoring drought for Nebraska when play resumed with a pair of free throws but he followed it up by fouling a Creighton 3-point shooter.

The Jays went 3-for-3 at the line to push the lead to 31-at 40-9.

Nebraska got going offensively after that but the first-half damage was far too much to overcome as Creighton went on to win 95-79 at CHI Health Center Omaha.

“Give Creighton credit, they obviously came out and threw the first punch, and the second, third and fourth punches as well,” Hoiberg said. “We just didn’t handle it well. Like we’ve talked about a lot with this group, we’ve got to find a way to battle through the tough times. We’ve got players that have to find a way to learn from it and be better the next time we step on the floor. That starts with practice on Monday. We’re going to have a great week heading into another tough environment on Friday at Indiana. We’ve got a heck of a stretch that we’re going through right now and we’ve got to find a way to compete better.”

Creighton’s 95 points is the highest total its scored in the series against Nebraska. The Bluejays shot 13-of-30 (43.3%) from 3 and 53% overall. Zegarowski, a sophomore, finished with 30 points on on 13-of-19 shooting, nine rebounds and five assists.

“I still remember the feeling I had last year, not only after the game but going into the game I was obviously just a freshman, going into a crazy environment, and I just wanted to use that experience to really motivate not only me but the whole team,” Zegarowski said. “We obviously still felt that game last year and this game is very important for us. I’m happy we came out with the win.”

Last year in Lincoln, Nebraska ran Creighton off the floor for a 94-75 win, snapping a seven-game losing streak in the series. The Jays turned the tables this year and now lead the series 26-24.

A strong second half offensively allowed the Huskers to crack 40% shooting, finishing at 41.5% for the game including 33.3% (9-of-27) from 3. Free-throw shooting continued to be a problem at 13-of-24 from the charity stripe.

Five players finished in double figures scoring led by Haanif Cheatham’s 14 on 5-of-12 from the field and 4-of-5 from the line. Thorir Thorbjarnarson, who made his first start in place of Mack, finished with a career-high 12 points on 4-of-5 from 3, besting his 11 points from his last game. 

“Let me say this about Thor: he’s a guy that really brings stability, he’s always in the right spot, he’s shooting with a lot of confidence right now,” Hoiberg said. “It’s been fun to see because Thor’s always doing the right thing and going out there and playing the right way. It’s good to see a lot of positive things happening right now for Thor.”

Mack, who came off the bench because he was one minute late to the bus according to Hoiberg, matched Thorbjarnarson with 12 points on 4-of-9 shooting and chipped in three assists. Matej Kavas had 11 points, shooting 3-of-7 from deep, and Jervay Green added 10 points and six rebounds, although he only shot 1-of-6 from 3. 

Nebraska missed its first seven shots from the field as the Bluejays jumped out to a 10-0 lead. Mack and Kevin Cross Jr. checked in at the 16:45 mark and Mack got to the cup for Nebraska’s first points, but the Jays answered with a 3-pointer from Damien Jefferson, his second of the season. The 6-foot-5 junior was 1-of-15 from deep entering the season.

It didn’t get much better form there as Creighton continued to pour it on and Nebraska continued to throw up bricks. Hoiberg had burned through all but one of his timeouts in the first 14 minutes of the game.

“The biggest thing is we were not getting back in transition, and we were taking the ball out of the net and we weren’t locating their shooters, and obviously they gained a lot of confidence with that,” Hoiberg said. “It was the number one thing we talked about going into this game was finding a way to get back and slow them down. It’s the most talented offensive team by a long shot that we have played to this point, and you have to do the little things to get back and at least try to slow them down and make them execute in the half court. We didn’t do that, and then on the other end I thought early on we were very undisciplined on the offensive end. We were playing east-west.”

When the lead first hit 31, Nebraska was 3-of-27 from the field including 1-of-11 from deep with six turnovers. Nebraska scored on seven of its last eight possessions of the half to trim the lead to 48-22, but even with the hot finish the Huskers only shot 23.5% overall after shooting 25% in the second half of the team’s loss at Georgia Tech on Wednesday.

Zegarowski put up 17 by himself in the first half as Creighton shot 51.5% overall including 8-of-16 from 3. Green led Nebraska with six points.

The strong close to the half for Nebraska continued into the second half. Creighton hit its first four shots to push the lead to 32 but the Huskers responded with a 20-7 run to cut it to 19 at 67-48.

That’s as close as Nebraska got, however, as the sides traded scores for a while until a 10-2 run by Creighton pushed it back to 30. With mostly walk-ons and freshmen on the floor for both sides, Nebraska closed out the game on a 13-2 run including the last 10 points of the game.

Freshmen Akol Arop and Charlie Easley both scored their first career points for Nebraska in the final three minutes.

Nebraska shot 61.3% from the field including 6-of-13 from 3 in the second half, but Creighton shot 54.5% to maintain the lead.

“In the second half, we finally got that thing into the paint and played north-south,” Hoiberg said/ “We got to the basket, we got to the free-throw line, we finished much better. We’re capable, we’re capable of doing that. But when you go out and dig yourself that type of hole, it’s hard. You’re putting a lot of pressure on yourself, you’re expending a lot of energy trying to climb back. We’ve got a lot to fix this week, especially on the defensive end. 

“Offensively, I’m confident we will be able to score the basketball. It showed in the second half, shooting 61% and scoring 54 points, but when you go out and you give them the type of looks that we did and the team thrives in transition from the 3-point line, we’re not giving ourselves a chance.”

After the game, Creighton coach Greg McDermott offered some praise for Hoiberg and urged patience as Nebraska continues to go through its transition.

“Fred will do a terrific job at Nebraska,” McDermott said. “He is one heck of a basketball coach. Any time you bring together a bunch of new guys and you don’t have upperclassmen helping you teach, it’s very, very difficult and one of the hardest things to accomplish is consistency. They’re a better team now than the team I watched play in early November those first few games and they’ll be a better team in another month and in another two months from now. It’s just going to take some time for Fred to get instituted what he wants on both ends of the floor.”

The Huskers will have some time this week to tinker with things and work on themselves as they prepare to dip their toes into conference play with a pair of early Big Ten games. Nebraska will head to Indiana on Friday before returning to Lincoln to host Purdue next Sunday.

Tipoff in Bloomington is set for 7 p.m. on BTN.

 
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