The four-hour flight from frigid Lincoln to the beaches of the Cayman Islands on Saturday morning will be a lot more bearable for Fred Hoiberg and the Huskers, thanks in part to a pair of fun-loving junior college transfers.
Sophomore guard Cam Mack made a move that sent Southern defender Lamarcus Lee to the floor, a move so embarrassing Mack could only stop and point at the fallen man, then dished the ball to Jervay Green in the corner for an open three that sealed Nebraska’s second win of the season.
Somewhere within 45 minutes of inconsistent play, Nebraska’s 13 newcomers continued to work through their chemistry issues to find an equilibrium and overcome adversity in a 93-86 overtime victory over Southern University Friday night at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
“The team responded beautifully,” Green said after the win. “We got in the huddles and there was no complaining, we were lifting each other up. If we just keep going like that we’re going to be fine.”
The Jaguars entered the game ranked 343rd out of the 353 Division I college basketball teams according to kenpom.com, but Hoiberg expected a fight from the tip.
“I was nervous going into this one,” Hoiberg said. “I knew how hard that team played. I could see that they had transfers that had played at a higher level, and I think this is a team that’s going to have a great chance of winning their league.”
Southern gave Nebraska that fight and then some, using its size advantage to dominate the glass throughout the game. In the first half alone, the Jaguars out-rebounded the Huskers 30-13.
Despite the struggles on the glass, the Huskers jumped out to an early eight point lead thanks to a barrage of threes that would last most of the game. Green started the scoring with back-to-back 3-pointers, then junior guard Dachon Burke and freshman guard Samari Curtis each added another to put Nebraska up 20-12 10 minutes in.
Graduate transfer Matej Kavas kept Nebraska in front from there, checking in and drilling a season-best three 3-pointers in the first half. Despite the hot shooting, Nebraska’s woes with rebounding and free throw shooting kept Southern within striking distance. The Jaguars had 13 offensive rebounds in the first half to Nebraska’s one, and a 7-15 clip from the free throw line by Nebraska allowed the Jaguars to come back and take the lead late in the first half.
Although the collapse nearly mirrored the one Nebraska had at the end of the first half in its season opener against UC Riverside, this time the Huskers had the answer. To no one’s surprise, it was in the form of their electric point guard.
A quick layup from Mack gave Nebraska the lead back, then after forcing a traveling violation, Mack drew a foul with two seconds left and made a free throw to give the Huskers a 40-38 lead at the break.
Southern continued to throw adversity Nebraska’s way throughout the second half as well. Senior point guard Micah Bradford caught fire and scored 18 of his game-high 31 points in the second half, including four made threes.
The Jaguars made their first seven shots of the second half, jumping out to an eight point lead before Nebraska received a familiar spark from the bench.
With the crowd largely disengaged and likely contemplating heading to the exits soon, junior forward Thorir Thorbjarnarson checked back into the game. Immediately, his individual defense forced a miss that bounced out of bounds. Of course, given how Nebraska’s rebounding efforts were going, the ball landed right in Southern head coach Sean Woods’ hands.
With no one looking, Thorbjarnarson poked the ball out of Woods’ hands and passed it in, ran down the floor, got the ball back and buried a 3-pointer. A technical foul for flopping gave the Huskers an extra free throw, then Thorbjarnarson drilled another three on the following possession. In less than a minute, the eight point deficit was down to one and Pinnacle Bank Arena was as loud as it has been all season.
Over the course of the final 10 minutes, the Huskers had plenty of opportunities to close the game out in regulation. After the seven-point outburst, neither team made a shot for nearly the next four minutes. Eventually, one of Mack’s signature no-look passes found freshman forward Kevin Cross for an easy layup to put the Huskers up three with five minutes left.
It was rebounding that once again allowed Southern to come back. Three offensive rebounds led to a putback layup to pull the Jaguars within three, and a 3-pointer by Bradford 19 seconds later tied the game at 70 with 4:30 to go.
The two teams traded baskets over the next several minutes, before a steal and layup by Green put Nebraska back up three. Thorbjarnarson came down with a defensive rebound on the next possession, but Green turned it over with a travel. Mack had his chance to ice the game two possessions later with the Huskers leading by one, but drove too erratically to the rim and lost the ball out of bounds.
A layup by senior forward Darius Williams gave Southern an 80-79 lead with 40 seconds left, but Green came back and drew a foul on sophomore guard Jayden Saddler with 15 seconds left. Green made just one of his two free throw attempts to tie the game, and walked to the bench with his hands over his head in disbelief.
Southern had two chances to win in the final seconds, but missed both attempts.
In overtime, it was 17-year old freshman Yvan Ouedraogo who took over the game. Two weeks ago in Nebraska’s double overtime loss to Southern Utah, he didn’t see the floor over either overtime period. This time around, Hoiberg trusted his big man and he delivered with a pair of easy dunks and made free throws to help Nebraska pull ahead 89-82 and set up Mack and Green’s magical dagger moment.
“If I’m going on the court, I’m going crazy,” Ouedraogo said after the win.
Despite getting out-rebounded 54-28 and making just 19 of 37 free throw attempts, shooting 57.4 percent from the field and 12 of 21 from three point range was enough for Nebraska to hang on and pull even to 2-2 ahead of a daunting stretch of games.
Over the next two weeks, the Huskers will play five games away from home. Their next home game will be December 15 against Purdue. The schedule immediately gets more challenging, but the Huskers sound ready for the improvement in competition.
“If we can continue to do that and again, find a way to battle on the boards, and make a free throw here and there, we’re going to have a chance,” Hoiberg said. “We scored 93 points and missed 18 free throws. We did a lot of good things tonight, but rebounding is a huge concern and a huge area that we need to get better on."
Nebraska will return to action Monday night against Washington State in the first round of the Cayman Islands Classic.