On the first day of February, tensions were nearing an all-time high at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
As the basketball cliche goes, it may have been chilly outside, but the action was heating up inside. Literally, most of the fans were sweating with their muscles clenched.
At times, it was hard to watch. It could have crumbled at any time. Instead, the on-court talent stayed calm and persevered, earning a loud ovation from the crowd when the goal was achieved. Without a doubt, it was one of the highlights of the season.
60-year old Gary Sladek, who goes by “The Amazing Sladek,” had just finished climbing 30 feet into the air and back on one stack of chairs, earning a louder ovation at the end of his halftime show than the home team did during any point of its 76-64 loss to No. 24 Penn State.
The Amazing Sladek managed to make it through halftime without his act crumbling into pieces. The Huskers couldn’t say the same about their act, as a five-point halftime deficit quickly ballooned into a 16-point margin in the first six minutes of the second half.
Nebraska’s losing streak is up to seven games, tying its longest dry spell since 2015, and frustration and anger are visible throughout the program.
“I feel sick about it,” Nebraska head coach Fred Hoiberg said after the loss. “And in our home building with an unbelievable crowd, to go out there and have that type of thing happen”.
“This was a scary game to me,” Penn State head coach Pat Chambers said. “I watched a lot of tape on Nebraska. Obviously, that game at Rutgers, [showed] the way they can shoot the basketball. They make nine-and-a-half threes a game. Any team that can make that many threes puts fear in you as a head coach.”
The rest of his team took his worries seriously going into Saturday night’s game. All but one of Penn State’s regular contributors had experienced Pinnacle Bank Arena before, and none have won here. Prior to tonight, Penn State was 0-5 in the six-year-old arena.
Penn State’s focus was present from the opening tip, despite Nebraska jumping out to a 9-2 lead with a trio of threes. The Nittany Lions knew that they would get plenty of open 3-point attempts, and quickly rallied by burying three of its own to tie the game up at 13.
Players on the bench were even engaged in the game, shouting out mismatches and screens and getting loud anytime someone scored.
As for the home team, their level of focus was apparent before tipoff. Starting sophomore point guard Cam Mack was benched for showing up three minutes late to Friday’s film session. It was the third time this season that Hoiberg didn’t allow Mack to start due to tardiness.
When Mack did enter the game at the 17 minute mark, he picked up two fouls over the next four minutes and quickly returned to the bench.
After Mack’s second foul, a charge with 11:23 left, Nebraska wouldn’t score for over four minutes and a 21-20 deficit quickly expanded to 27-20. Mack quickly returned, and found freshman forward Yvan Ouedraogo for a dunk to stop the bleeding. Junior guard Dachon Burke Jr. then scored seven straight points, and the Huskers were within one with 4:21 left until halftime.
They wouldn’t make another shot until the final minute, when junior forward Thorir Thorbjarnarson tipped in a missed free throw while being fouled.
At the half, Nebraska had made just one of 10 layup attempts.
It was a familiar script for Nebraska, as the second half began with Penn State scoring on seven of its first 10 possessions. Nebraska would score on just two of its first 10 possessions in the half.
Usually, when teams go on early second half runs against Nebraska, the Huskers have a counterpunch ready. In this game, it only got worse. By the 13-minute mark of the second half, Penn State junior guard Jamari Wheeler picked off an errant Nebraska pass and with hardly any resistance threw a flawless lob to senior forward Lamar Stevens, making the once close game a 60-39 laugher.
“It’s beyond me,” Hoiberg said about the second half struggles. “We come out in the second half with the same group of guys, same team, and lay an egg for the first three, four minutes of the half...I say this every week, we have to find a way to be consistent.”
As the game continued to spiral, Hoiberg started pulling his regular contributors in favor of guys he felt were giving a better effort. The first to go were Mack and freshman forward Kevin Cross. Both of the newcomers had been playing well in recent games, but had combined to shoot 1 for 8 over the first 30 minutes of the game.
In came junior guard Jervay Green and Ouedraogo. One minute later, Burke Jr. was pulled in favor of Easley. After his run in the first half, Burke Jr. started the second half by making one of three shot attempts.
At the under-eight minute media timeout, senior guard Matej Kavas entered a game for the first time in over three weeks. He rewarded Hoiberg by scoring eight points in the final eight minutes, and also finished with two rebounds and two assists.
With just over five minutes left and the outcome already well in hand, Mack missed another layup and was benched for the rest of the game. For the first time in his Nebraska career, he finished with zero points.
“We have a rule of being on time, and Cam was three minutes late for a film session yesterday,” Hoiberg said about his point guard. “So that was the reason Cam did not start tonight. I sat him for the first four minutes; he went back in the game and unfortunately got in foul trouble. He just could never get it going tonight.”
In the final minutes, the jumbotron above the court flashed the upcoming schedule to the scant remaining crowd. Four of the next five opponents are nationally ranked, including the top three teams in the conference.
The Huskers have a week to prepare for the first game of that stretch at No. 18 Iowa. According to Hoiberg, a lot could change before his team takes the court in Iowa City.
“It’s a big week for us,” Hoiberg said about the upcoming stretch. “It’s not going to happen again, where the guys out there are hanging their heads and not playing with the type of energy we need to, especially in this building in front of these fans. They support us too much to do that to them. It makes me sick that we played like that in front of our great fans.”