It’s hard for inexperienced teams to shake recurring tendencies.
After some early success in conference play, Fred Hoiberg’s squad is realizing just how tough the Big Ten can be—evident by Nebraska’s current six-game losing streak in conference play. Despite not having arguably its two best players in senior guard Zavier Simpson and junior forward Isaiah Livers, Michigan used a big second-half run to down Nebraska 79-68.
It would be foolish not to expect winless droughts and sloppy play from a roster assembled in May and it’s clear that Hoiberg’s squad is competing hard night in and night out.
But those tendencies don’t fade, and when they reappear, they can damage a team mentally, no matter how a game is going. That happened on Tuesday night, and Michigan (12-8, 3-6 Big Ten) picked up a season-saving victory in its first road triumph of the season. Meanwhile Nebraska (7-14, 2-8 Big Ten) continues to be in a funk, unable to snap its losing ways.
Here are five takeaways from a disappointing defeat.
Another second-half drought sinks Nebraska
If there’s been one thing that has been the biggest issue for Hoiberg’s team, it’s the Huskers’ tendency to fall behind by double-digits in the second half. When shots aren’t falling, like they weren’t for a stretch in the second half tonight, the offense gets stagnant.
Early in the second half, it appeared the Huskers would escape their patented drought. Junior guard Dachon Burke Jr. finished a driving layup after a Michigan turnover to tie the game at 50, and Nebraska appeared to have Michigan on the ropes as Pinnacle Bank Arena began to spring to life.
Freshman forward Kevin Cross nailed a stepback jumper just over a minute later, and the Huskers went from being down 40-35 at halftime to having a 52-50 lead with 13:49 to go.
Then, things quickly went south.
Michigan went on a 21-4 run over the next 7:58 of game time, led by 7 points each from freshman guard Franz Wagner and sophomore forward Brandon Johns Jr.. A Nebraska lead turned into a 71-56 Michigan advantage. Nebraska looked lost and defeated as the stretch wore on while the inspiring basketball it played in the first half was nowhere to be seen.
Junior guard Thorir Thorbjarnarson hit a 3-pointer with 3:29 to go that cut Michigan’s lead to 72-63, but the Huskers failed to get any closer.
Kevin Cross continues to impress
Cross’ rapid growth and development has been one of the most encouraging things to see for Husker fans this season.
The Little Rock, Arkansas, native is excelling off the bench, especially in his last three outings. Cross followed up a 17-point performance at Wisconsin and a four-point, three-assist outing at Rutgers with one of the most complete performances of his young Husker career.
Cross finished with 17 points on 6-11 shooting, four rebounds and two assists. He was also 3-5 from deep, a solid performance on a team-wide 43% shooting night from 3-point range. Cross was also the lone Husker to boast a positive plus/minus, as Nebraska outscored Michigan by three points while he was on the floor.
Despite the solid offensive performance, Cross showed his immaturity on the defensive end. Cross was in foul trouble again on Tuesday night against Michigan, finishing with four fouls. Cross picked up two fouls in a span of 13 seconds in the second half, the second of which sent him to the bench with his fourth foul with 11:33 left to play in the second half.
Michigan led 55-52 at the time of Cross’ departure, and when he reentered the game with 7:52 left, Nebraska was down 65-55. He was a non-factor the rest of the night, scoring just two more points on a garbage-time dunk with 52 seconds left.
Still, Cross’ performance inspires confidence and is something to build on as the season progresses.
I’m running out of adjectives to describe Cam Mack
Sophomore guard Cam Mack should make the headband a permanent move.
Seriously though, I’m running out of ways to describe his game and what exactly he means to Nebraska’s offense. The junior college transfer was spectacular as always on Tuesday night, following up a 19-point effort against Rutgers with a stat sheet-stuffing performance against the Wolverines.
Mack nearly finished with his second triple-double of the season against Michigan with 19 points, nine assists and seven rebounds. He had no problem blowing by Wolverine junior guard Eli Brooks all night, scoring and dishing in the paint with ease.
The most impressive part of Mack’s night was his performance from 3-point range, as the 35% 3-point shooter caught fire from deep. He connected on five of seven long-range attempts against Michigan, good for 71%. Mack also finished the night shooting 50% from the field, a number that could’ve been higher had he finished a few more opportunities at the rim.
Michigan buried the Huskers in the paint in the second half, specifically on its 21-4 run
As Nebraska couldn’t buy a basket on the offensive end in the second half, Michigan took advantage of the Huskers’ lack of size and played bully-ball with Johns Jr. and senior center Jon Teske.
Johns Jr.’s night was particularly impressive, blowing his 5.1 points per game average out of the water with 16 points and seven rebounds. He, Teske and the rest of the Wolverines made sure to limit Nebraska to one shot on the defensive end and capitalized on second-chance opportunities.
After Teske scored two of his nine points with a nice finish inside to give Michigan a 67-55 lead, Nebraska appeared to get a much-needed defensive stop as the Wolverines missed an outside shot. Johns Jr. didn’t give up on the play, blowing by a stationary Mack and Burke Jr. to grab the rebound and make the layup inside to extend the Wolverine lead to 14 points.
Michigan scored 38 points in the paint compared to Nebraska’s 28 and out-rebounded the Huskers 41-27. The Wolverines’ 10 offensive rebounds were instrumental in Michigan extending its second-half lead.
Despite forcing 17 Michigan turnovers, the Huskers had no answer for Michigan in the paint—one of the central factors to the Wolverine victory.
Other scorers step up for Michigan
As mentioned earlier, Michigan announced it had suspended senior guard Zavier Simpson for a violation of team rules on Monday and was without junior forward Isaiah Livers due to a groin injury on Tuesday night.
Those aren’t just any two players either.
Simpson is one of the better point guards in the country, averaging 12.8 points per game and 8.3 assists per game. Livers averages 13.1 points per game. Without those two, the Wolverines needed secondary scoring options to step up, and they did.
Brooks led all scorers with 20 points on 6-12 shooting, freshman guard Franz Wagner had 18 points on 8-15 shooting and Johns Jr. had an aforementioned 16 points on 5-6 shooting.
It’s a shame that those three performances outshined Nebraska’s impressive scoring trio. Senior guard Haanif Cheatham followed Mack and Burke Jr.’s performances with 17 points. Outside of those three, the Huskers had 15 points of production.
Nebraska can’t seem to shake its losing ways, and another formidable opponent visits Pinnacle Bank Arena this weekend in No. 24 Penn State. Tipoff is at 6 p.m. and the game will be on BTN.