Basketball vs. Michigan Photo No. 17

Nebraska’s Alonzo Verge Jr. (1) jumps with the ball during the game against Michigan at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Nebraska men’s basketball played one of its best games of the season on Wednesday night. 

There are a couple of caveats to this statement, none of which are necessarily important in this context. Yes, Nebraska’s 88-74 victory came against Kennesaw State, a middling program in the ASUN Conference ranked No. 268 in the country according to kenpom.com. Yes, the victory could’ve been cleaner — Nebraska finished the game with 17 turnovers and started slowly.

None of that is important, though. Not right now.

Head coach Fred Hoiberg’s team was in a deep, deep funk entering Wednesday night. The Huskers rode a five-game losing streak into their final nonconference game and had been beaten in a variety of disappointing and frustrating ways. Nebraska looked broken offensively and lost defensively, all while Hoiberg seemingly had little answers. 

The single most important thing to take away from Wednesday is that the Huskers not only finally snapped their lengthy losing skid against Kennesaw State, but looked good doing so. 

Here are four takeaways from the Husker victory: 

Hoiberg’s quick hook

A resounding victory didn’t appear to be in the cards for Nebraska given how poorly it started the game. 

Kennesaw State’s first two baskets of the game came on a second-chance 3-pointer and a breakaway dunk following a turnover by senior guard Alonzo Verge Jr.. After the opening six minutes of play, Kennesaw State led 16-8. 

Slow starts have not been an uncommon sight this season, but how Hoiberg responded to it was definitely a first. Instead of waiting for the predictably poor offense typical of a slow Nebraska start, Hoiberg eliminated the problem immediately. 

Freshman guard Bryce McGowens hoisted a contested step-back 3-pointer with 15:08 remaining in the first half. Hoiberg substituted him at the next dead ball. Junior forward Derrick Walker was pulled early following a turnover, as was freshman forward Eduardo Andre. Sophomore guard Keisei Tominaga was yanked following an early, ill-advised 3-pointer.

In fact, every Husker starter had been pulled for an early slip-up before the second media timeout. 

It seems innocuous, but Wednesday night was the first time that Nebraska took serious steps towards snapping its offensive slump. The changes and adjustments Hoiberg’s early substitutions brought about resulted in one of the Huskers’ finest offensive performances this season. 

The lid came off

It took 13 games, but Nebraska finally had a shooting night that lived up to Hoiberg’s expectations. 

Kennesaw State entered Wednesday’s game as the No. 303 defense according to kenpom.com and defended the 2-pointer at one of the worst clips in college basketball. However, the Huskers badly needed a night like Wednesday. 

Nebraska shot a season-high 51.7% from 3-point range against the Owls on a season-high 15 3-pointers. The biggest change on Wednesday night came from the overall quality of long range opportunities. 

In past Husker contests, a majority of outside chances have been heavily contested and usually the last gasp of a stagnant offensive possession. Against Kennesaw State, that changed. The ball moved consistently — largely thanks to a renewed effort to work the ball through Walker in the high post more frequently. At any rate, it worked.

The Huskers finished with a season-high 20 assists against the Owls, with Verge leading the way with a game-high 12 dimes. He consistently helped create wide-open looks, most notably for Tominaga who finished with a team-high 18 points on 4-of-7 from 3-point range. 

Tominaga was one of five Huskers to knock down multiple 3-pointers. In total, seven Huskers made a 3-pointer. Last Sunday against Kansas State, that number was three.

There’s a theme here. Nebraska’s best shooting performance of the season came on a night in which the team moved the ball better than it had previously all year. Hoiberg’s squad was in desperate need of a performance like Wednesday’s, especially as Big Ten play approaches.

What’s more, Nebraska had 26 bench points after recording just six against Kansas State. The Huskers shot 52.6% from the field, and perhaps the only negative is the team’s 13-of-21 performance from the free throw line. 

In all, Nebraska couldn’t have asked for a better offensive showing in its final nonconference tune-up.

A misleading defensive effort

Upon first glance, one might be inclined to believe that Nebraska didn’t have a great defensive outing against Kennesaw State.

After all, the Owls scored 74 points, had a player erupt for 27 points in junior guard Terrell Burden and out-rebounded Nebraska 42-31. 

However, that doesn’t tell the whole story. 

Kennesaw State, unlike Nebraska, entered Wednesday’s game as an above-average 3-point shooting team. The Owls ranked No. 114 nationally shooting an average of 34.7% from deep per game. Nebraska eliminated the Owls’ long-range effectiveness, limiting Kennesaw State to 7-of-26 from 3-point range on Wednesday. 

The Owls shot 41.3% from the field, but did a majority of their work at the basket. Nebraska forced a staggering 21 turnovers. Nebraska has forced 40 turnovers in its last two contests, no-doubt an encouraging sign moving into conference play. Finally, a good chunk of Kennesaw State’s offensive production came after the Huskers had built a lead as great as 24 points and had pulled their starters. 

Nebraska’s offense won it the game on Wednesday night, but its defense kept the lead comfortable. 

What can momentum do?

A victory against the Owls may have been a given based on pregame expectations, but it was necessary nonetheless. Evidence of Hoiberg’s planned offensive changes came to fruition against the Owls, which should serve as a building block as Nebraska progresses through Big Ten play. 

Now, the Huskers head into a holiday break with some much needed positive momentum. Hoiberg’s team has nine days in between a Jan. 2 clash with Ohio State, with the added benefit of the game being at Pinnacle Bank Arena. It’s reasonable to anticipate that Nebraska should be able to build on this performance against the Buckeyes. 

Kennesaw State and Ohio State are on two completely different planes of existence in the college basketball landscape, and it remains to be seen just how impactful (or meaningless) Wednesday’s game will ultimately become. Still, Nebraska did what it needed to do and handled an inferior opponent.

It’s better to head into a lengthy layoff on a high note, and the Huskers did just that against the Owls. 

sports@dailynebraskan.com