Fred Hoiberg brought a revamped roster and a fresh style of play to Lincoln, but one thing Hoiberg had yet to identify over the season’s first six games is a go-to scorer when games get close.
Wednesday night against South Florida, Nebraska found not one late-game closer, but two.
Senior guard Haanif Cheatham finished with a career-high 26 points and junior guard Dachon Burke Jr. added 21 points to lead Nebraska (4-3) to a 74-67 victory over USF (3-4)—a victory that sealed third place at the Cayman Islands Classic for the Huskers.
USF and Nebraska traded baskets early, with the Bulls looking nothing like their billing as the No. 331 offense in Division I. After the Huskers raced out to an early 6-0 lead, South Florida responded well, drilling shots with ease against Nebraska’s lackadaisical perimeter defense en route to a 27-19 lead with 8:14 left.
Unlike Tuesday night’s game against George Mason, Nebraska responded and cut into USF’s lead—with Cheatham leading the way.
South Florida extended the lead to eight points in the first half on three separate occasions, and each time Cheatham responded with two points of his own. With Nebraska down 29-21, Cheatham took an outlet pass following a USF make, raced down the court, and laid the ball in.
That possession not only cut into USF’s lead, but also was a perfect possession in Hoiberg’s eyes—get the ball out quickly and generate easy baskets.
Nebraska and South Florida continued to go back-and-forth to close the first half, with the Bulls taking a 35-33 lead into the break.
Hoiberg’s squad shot 50% from the field in the game’s opening 20 minutes, but on 11 less shots than USF due to six first-half Nebraska turnovers and nine USF offensive rebounds. The Huskers closed the half strong, though, something they were unable to do against George Mason.
The first few minutes of the second half looked like a repeat of Tuesday night for the Huskers. USF came out of the locker room hot, Nebraska couldn’t rebound or defend the 3-pointer and wasn’t making enough shots to keep up. A layup by USF senior Laquincy Rideau extended the Bull lead to 53-46 with 12:39 to go, and the Huskers looked to be in trouble.
Then Cheatham and Burke took over.
The pair went on an 11-0 run over the next 2:41 and a backdoor cut from junior Thorir Thorbjarnarson led to another basket to extend Nebraska’s run to 13-0 and its lead to 59-53.
After a Cheatham layup brought Nebraska’s lead to 63-55 with 6:42 left South Florida responded, going on a 7-0 run capped by a layup from junior guard David Collins. With four minutes to play, Nebraska needed its closer. Enter Burke Jr.
The Orange, New Jersey native and one of the two holdovers from the Tim Miles era took over the game, sinking a 3-pointer in response to Collins’ layup to give the Huskers a four-point lead. Burke Jr. found the ball in his hands again with Nebraska leading 66-63 with the clock trickling under two minutes, and he responded by drilling a 25-footer right in the mouth of a USF defender.
Still the Bulls had life, but this time it was sophomore guard Cam Mack’s turn to halt any USF momentum. Despite not having a productive scoring night, Mack hit a huge jumper to keep Nebraska’s lead at six, then a free throw to give Nebraska a 72-67 lead with 40 seconds left.
Free-throw shooting, the bane of Nebraska’s existence all season, ended up being a non-factor tonight—which was surprising given how close the game was. The Huskers shot four free throws in the game’s final minutes, three of which were made. Nebraska shot a season-best 73% from the line, but USF’s offensive ineptitude towards the end of the game kept Nebraska off of the line.
The Bulls scored 5 points over the last four minutes of the game, and their terrible possession after Mack made it 72-67 that featured three missed shots and 27 seconds of time wasted iced the game. Fittingly, Cheatham stepped up and knocked down two more free throws to seal a 74-67 victory.
Burke may get the glory for tonight’s performance with 19 second-half points and a couple of huge 3-pointers, but Cheatham’s play was proof that Hoiberg’s style of play can lead to big scoring nights.
All game, Cheatham was getting out in transition, finishing layups and knocking down big shots. Burke may be the closer, but Wednesday night Cheatham emerged as the star.
Nebraska hits the road next week to face Georgia Tech in the Big Ten/ACC challenge on Wednesday, Dec. 4. Tip-off is at 6:15 p.m. and the game will be televised on ESPNU.