A team comprised primarily of transfers from mid-major programs played like a mid-major program in a season-opening shocker.
An arena that was buzzing for the debut of Nebraska basketball’s esteemed head coach was empty by the final media timeout, as UC Riverside thoroughly dominated a disjointed Nebraska team 66-47.
Nebraska’s first game day of the Fred Hoiberg era began with some ominous foreshadowing, as former Nebraska coach and current assistant Doc Sadler tweeted this morning, “I am excited to be working for coach Hoiberg in my 38 years of coaching. Fans be patient coach is going to do some great things here but after going on a trip this summer I was reminded Rome wasn’t built in a day. #GBR #Huskers.”
Hoiberg said before the season began that he was curious to see how his team would respond to adversity during a regular season game, and the initial test results are not promising.
The Huskers began the game by making six of their first seven shots, earning a standing ovation from the crowd as they went into the first media timeout with a 14-7 lead. There wouldn’t be much else to cheer for the rest of the night.
Nebraska made just four of its final 22 shots of the first half, with only two of them coming from outside the paint.
Meanwhile UC Riverside, ranked 287th in kenpom.com’s preseason ratings, shook off a slow start and began to take advantage of a lack of detail by Nebraska. The Highlanders missed their first three 3-point attempts, but a make by Dominick Pickett sparked a 25-12 run to end the half. In that stretch, UC Riverside shot 4-of-7 from 3-point range.
Adversity had hit Nebraska hard, as it went into the half trailing 32-28. The response coming out of halftime was another stern reminder that this team has 13 players that have only been in Lincoln for six months.
The players slowly filed out of the locker room at the break with hardly a sound. A production assistant asked if they were ready to come back on the court yet, and one player said no. Eventually, all 15 of them quietly walked back onto the court to warm up.
The silence was a common theme on the court just as much as it was off of it. There was minimal communication between players on the court, and the players on the bench were stunned and motionless.
30 feet away, the Highlanders were growing louder as their confidence ballooned in the second half. Coach David Patrick had a clear game plan for his team, and it executed it to near perfection.
Nearly every offensive possession by UC Riverside ate up at least 25 seconds, with 13 of them getting extended another 15-20 seconds by offensive rebounds. Nebraska’s defenders struggled to close out on 3-point shots, and the Highlanders took advantage of that early and often in the second half.
Sophomore guard Dragan Elkaz buried a three for the Highlanders on their first possession of the second half, and fellow sophomore DJ McDonald followed with three consecutive threes of his own to push the lead to 12.
After the third make, Hoiberg called a timeout and a very loud and excited McDonald slapped the rear end of a Nebraska defender. He had no reaction, and Nebraska had no response to Riverside’s run.
Out of the timeout, Pickett, freshman guard Zyon Pullin and Elkaz each made threes to make it an 18-point lead. In the first nine minutes of the second half, UC Riverside made 7-of-9 3-point attempts.
When a miss finally ended a string of four consecutive threes, what was left of the Pinnacle Bank Arena crowd let out a sarcastic cheer.
Nebraska finished the game making 6 of 26 3-point attempts.
It’s safe to say that that isn’t what Hoiberg expected out of his team when adversity hit.
“Adversity hit us in a huge way tonight,” Hoiberg said after the loss. “You can talk to your guys about it until you get blue in the face. It’s going to hit you every time you step out on the floor. It will be how you handle it and we didn’t handle it well tonight.”
Senior guard Haanif Cheatham echoed Hoiberg’s feelings after the game, saying, “This is our first time ever being tested and I think once we recognized what we need to do, once we got a slap in the face, we got stagnant a little bit. We got a little bit stuck. I know we’re going to get better.”
With no players taller than 6’9”, rebounding was a major concern for Nebraska this season. Against a team with a 7-foot center, the Huskers were out-rebounded 49-29. The center, sophomore Callum McRae, had just six of the rebounds. Junior guard George Willborn III led all players with 18 total rebounds.
The Highlanders scored 11 points off of offensive rebounds. The Huskers scored zero off of nine offensive rebounds.
Of Nebraska’s 12 eligible players, five came from either mid-major programs or junior colleges. That was apparent on Tuesday night, and likely before Tuesday night given the timing of Sadler’s plea.
The Huskers will face three more mid-major programs before their first Power Five test in three weeks against Washington State, starting with Southern Utah on Saturday afternoon.