After suffering a humiliating defeat in Lincoln last season, Creighton went into Saturday’s rematch with a bloodthirst to return the favor.
By the time Creighton’s lead ballooned to 37-7 in the first half, the score in this rivalry was more than settled.
Going into the game, Nebraska’s entire roster had combined to play one minute in the heated rivalry. Going back to his days as both a player and coach at Iowa State, Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg has had his fair share of college rivalry moments.
When asked about his initial thoughts on his new in-state civil war and the first rendition of it with him on the sidelines, all he could do was (somewhat) sarcastically quip back “It sucked.”
Creighton’s players released a year’s worth of pent up frustrations on an unsuspecting Nebraska team on Saturday afternoon at the CHI Health Center, splattering the state blue again with a 95-76 beatdown.
Creighton’s student section filled up within minutes of the doors opening. The students taunted anyone and everyone in red, and had plenty of jokes about the recent failures of both Nebraska’s football and basketball programs early on. But by the time the second half rolled around, the hostility had left the arena, as had most of the students.
As it had been in so many previous showdowns in Omaha, this rendition of Nebraska-Creighton was another laugher that was over before halftime.
Creighton sophomore guard Marcus Zegarowski poured in 30 points, and junior point guard Ty-Shon Alexander added another 22, but both were upset after the game that the final margin wasn’t larger than 95-76.
It likely would have been, but a smaller lineup featuring no forwards found consistent success in the second half, with all five of Nebraska’s starters scoring 10 or more points and senior guard Haanif Cheatham leading the way with 14 points.
“We’ve got to find a way to battle through the tough times,” Hoiberg said after the loss. “And we've got players that have got to find a way to learn from it, and it'd be better the next time we step on the floor, that starts with practice on Monday.”
Dachon Burke fought hard to win a loose ball on the opening tipoff, but that would be the extent of Nebraska’s competitiveness in the first half. Junior forward Damien Jefferson, who entered the game shooting 1-15 from 3-point range this season, buried two open attempts in the opening minutes.
Nebraska junior Cam Mack was one minute late to the team bus, parked at the hotel across the street from the arena, and Hoiberg disciplined him by starting junior guard Thorir Thorbjarnarson in his place.
“It's important,” Hoiberg said about being on time. “You have to do it, it's when everybody else is there ready to go. You go. It's an important part of everything that we're trying to build. It’s doing everything the right way, and being on time is a big part of that.”
The move was short-lived as Mack checked in three minutes into the game with his team already trailing 10-0. Mack immediately got the Huskers on the board with a layup, but Creighton’s onslaught only continued to get worse.
Nebraska didn’t do much to stop it, either. Freshman forward Yvan Ouedraogo missed four layups, Cheatham and Burke were denied repeatedly in the paint and no one could find their shot from behind the arc.
Just eight minutes into the game, Creighton already had a commanding 26-4 lead. The Huskers had their chances to keep it relatively close, but that would have required a level of mental toughness that Nebraska just didn’t have.
On the sidelines, Hoiberg was trying anything and everything. He switched up defensive assignments, called two timeouts, and tried any reasonable lineup combination combination that he could think of. None of it helped.
Even the basic tenets of Hoiberg’s basketball philosophy didn’t come easy early on. Players struggled to get open or make the right pass, slowed down the pace, and panicked in transition. On one play late in the first half, a steal practically fell in junior guard Cam Mack’s lap. He hesitated for two seconds before starting to drive the ball up the court. Burke was wide open under the rim, but by the time Mack saw him and threw a pass in, the shot was swatted away by a pair of defenders.
One of Creighton’s few newcomers made the most of his first action in the rivalry early and often on Saturday afternoon. Omaha native Shereef Mitchell came off of the bench and proceeded to carve up Nebraska’s defenders with a triplicate of crossovers. The first one came near the end of the first half, as he crossed over Thorbjarnarson for an easy layup that prompted Hoiberg to call his second timeout of the half.
After the timeout, slow transition defense from a missed 3-pointer led to an easy dunk by Creighton forward Christian Bishop. Hoiberg didn’t hesitate in calling his third timeout of the half, throwing his hands up in disbelief at his players as they walked towards the huddle. Behind the bench, most of the Nebraska family section had their faces in their palms while the adjacent student section was rocking.
“I wanted to take eight more on the next eight possessions but I didn't have them,” Hoiberg joked after.
Shortly after the timeout, Nebraska’s offense began to find its rhythm. The Huskers went on a 7-0 run and ended the half by making four of their final six shots. Despite the run, Nebraska trailed 48-22 at the half.
In the second half, Nebraska continued to find success with a smaller lineup featuring no forwards. Cheatham scored 12 of his 14 points in the second half by finishing four layups and making four free throws, and Thorbjarnarson also added nine points, but the Huskers couldn’t do enough on defense to get closer than 19 points.
Junior guard Jervay Green sent a defender to the floor with a crossover, passed the ball to Dachon Burke and pleaded for the ball back for an open 3-pointer, but instead Burke drove to the rim and made a contested two.
The Huskers went on another 7-0 run, but Mack was called for traveling and Alexander made a layup to squash the rally. Up 64-49 halfway through the period, Mitchell crossed over Green at midcourt, then sent Thorbjarnarson to the floor with the same move and found junior guard Mitch Ballock on the wing for an open 3-pointer, putting the punctuation on the vengeful beatdown.
With mostly bench players in the game, Nebraska ended the game on a 10-0 run that included the first career points for freshman forward Akol Arop.
“I thought early on, we were very undisciplined on the offensive end, we were playing east-west,” Hoiberg said. “And then in the second half we finally got that thing into the paint, played north-south and we got to the basket, we got to the free throw line, we finished much better.”
Many of the same problems that have plagued Nebraska all season continued on Saturday. The Huskers were out-rebounded 43-34 and made just 13 of 24 free throw attempts. The Bluejays, a statistically excellent 3-point shooting team, drilled 13-30 attempts. Nebraska made just 9-27, with six coming in the second half.
The road won’t get any easier for Nebraska. The Huskers will hit the road for their third consecutive road game, travelling to Bloomington, Indiana to take on Indiana (8-1) in their conference opener on Friday night.