Nebraska Basketball vs. Southern Utah Photo No. 7

Nebraska's Haanif Cheatham (22) drives to the basket during the Huskers' matchup against Southern Utah at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Nebraska basketball will have to settle for the third-place game at the Cayman Islands Classic after an 85-66 defeat against George Mason.

The Huskers went back-and-forth with the Patriots for a majority of the game, but never trailed by less than six points in the second half. Nebraska led for 1:05 on Tuesday night, and no matter how close the Huskers came, the game never felt like swinging Nebraska’s way. 

Here are five takeaways from the Huskers' first loss of the Cayman Islands Classic.

Burke Jr.’s hot start

Junior guard Dachon Burke Jr. looked to single-handedly take down George Mason by himself in the early portion of Tuesday night’s game.

In fact, Burke Jr.’s contributions led to Nebraska’s only lead of the game. Burke had Nebraska’s first 12 points of the game, followed by an assist a few plays later to give the Huskers a 16-14 lead over the Patriots with 10:44 left in the first half.

Burke Jr. hit from all over the floor with two 3-pointers, two free throws, a layup and a mid-range jumper to power Nebraska’s offense early. However, Burke’s early 12 points were his last significant scoring action of the game—with a last-minute dunk being his only other basket.

He finished with 14 points and led Nebraska’s defensive effort with five steals.

Cross and Cheatham keep the Huskers within striking distance

After trading blows in the first half, George Mason entered halftime with a 37-28 lead. The Patriots looked to bury the Huskers early in the second half, extending the lead to 45-30 with 18 minutes left to play.

It was then that senior guard Haanif Cheatham and freshman forward Kevin Cross started knocking down big shots to keep Nebraska in the game.

Cheatham cut the Patriot lead to 12 on the ensuing possession with a 3-pointer, and Cross followed with a 3-pointer of his own two minutes later to keep George Mason’s lead at 11. On Nebraska’s next two offensive possessions, Cross hit a jumper and Cheatham hit another 3 to make it a 47-41 game.

Cross and Cheatham combined to score Nebraska’s first 21 points in the second half. The pair contributed heavily in George Mason’s lead being cut to six on two separate occasions in the second half before the Patriots began to pull away. 

Cross scored all of his 11 points in the second half, while Cheatham also scored 11 points in the second half and finished with 13 points.

Huskers end both halves cold

With 6:31 left in the first half, freshman forward Yvan Ouedraogo finished an assist by sophomore guard Cam Mack to make it a 27-23 game. On Nebraska’s next offensive possession, freshman guard Samari Curtis drilled a 3-pointer to keep George Mason’s lead at four.

Nebraska scored two points over the remaining 5:27. The Huskers closed the half shooting 1-8, and George Mason extended its halftime lead to 9. 

Amazingly, the exact same thing happened in the second half.

Mack knocked down a 3-pointer to cut the Patriot lead to 71-63 with 6:06 left, giving the Huskers hope to close in on a lead that had eluded them for a majority of the second half. 

George Mason closed the game on a 14-3 run. The Huskers made one field goal, the aforementioned Burke Jr. dunk with 26 seconds remaining.

Ouedraogo’s light usage contributes to George Mason’s dominance on the glass

George Mason’s defense presented a challenge that Fred Hoiberg’s squad hadn’t seen all year—a suffocating full-court 1-2-2 press. The Huskers didn’t do well with the added pressure, turning the ball over 15 times.

When teams are trying to break pressure and come back from a double-digit deficit, coaches generally want their team’s best ball handlers on the floor. As a result Ouedraogo played 20 minutes on Tuesday night, and the Huskers sorely missed his presence inside.

The Patriots outrebounded Nebraska 49-26, with a 15-7 advantage on the offensive boards. Nebraska’s rebounding ineptitude doesn’t fall squarely on Hoiberg’s light play of Ouedraogo, as Nebraska’s guards showed little to no interest in extending possessions on the offensive end or ending them on the defensive end.

No matter who is in the game for Nebraska, the rebounding problem should be the area of most concern for Fred Hoiberg right now. If it is not resolved soon, the Huskers will have no chance to rebound in the physical Big Ten.

George Mason’s guards dominate

The story of Tuesday night’s game was the dominance of George Mason’s guards. 

Sophomore guard Jamaal Hartwell II led all scorers with 23 points on 53% shooting, and he was accompanied by strong showings from sophomore guard Jordan Miller, who had 20 points on 63% shooting and junior guard Javon Greene, who had 17 points on 41% shooting.

Notice a trend between those three? The Patriots shot the lights out, particularly in the second half. George Mason shot 60% from the field and 58% on 3-pointers in the second half. When the Huskers got cold, George Mason got hot, and the Huskers had no answer for it.

Tonight’s performance was less on Nebraska and more on the fact that the Huskers caught George Mason on a good night. The Huskers shot 39% from the field and 33% on 3-pointers, totals good enough to compete on most nights. George Mason also had more turnovers than Nebraska, as the Huskers finished with a +4 turnover margin.

Nebraska was unlucky, and it will look to turn that luck around in tomorrow’s third-place game against South Florida. Tip-off is at 4 p.m. and the game will be streamed on FloSports.

sports@dailynebraskan.com