A dejected Cam Mack faced the media slumped over his chair, forcing words out of his mouth with more frustration by the syllable as his hands dug deeper into his cheeks.
It’s safe to say that no one is having fun right now inside the Nebraska locker room.
“I think we just need to come together more,” Mack mumbled through his unmoving lips. “Instead of us just fading away and everybody trying to make a ‘superman’ play. I feel like we just all need to buy in together and listen to what coach Fred [Hoiberg] is telling us.”
30 minutes of a commendable effort on Tuesday night were for naught, as the Huskers fell back on old habits and subsequently let a tie game with 10 minutes left turn into a resounding 79-68 loss.
Mack was electric once again, leading the Huskers with 19 points, seven rebounds and nine assists. But he was outplayed by his counterpart, junior guard Eli Brooks, who finished with 20 points, nine rebounds and four assists. Brooks was starting in place of senior guard Zavier Simpson, Michigan’s leader on and off the court, who was suspended one game for a violation of team rules.
Shortly before tipoff, it was also revealed that Michigan junior forward Isaiah Livers, the team’s second leading scorer (13.1 points per game) would also not play due to injury.
It would end up not mattering, as the Wolverines snapped a four-game losing streak behind strong efforts by Brooks, freshman guard Franz Wagner (18 points) and senior center Jon Teske (nine points, eight rebounds).
Tuesday’s contest started on a somber note, as both teams honored the legacy of Kobe Bryant before the game. Prior to the singing of the National Anthem, the game clock paused at 24.8 seconds and a 24 second moment of silence was held for Bryant, who passed away unexpectedly on Sunday.
After Michigan won the opening tipoff, sophomore guard David DeJulius held the ball in the backcourt for 10 seconds to cause a violation, and Cam Mack followed by holding the ball for a shot clock violation. Both have been common tributes to Bryant from NBA teams this week.
On Nebraska’s following offensive possession, Mack set the tone for the backcourt battle with a crossover that sent DeJulius to the floor as he buried a 3-pointer. A couple minutes later, Michigan freshman guard Franz Wagner tried a similar crossover, but dribbled the ball off of his foot out of bounds.
The two struggling teams played at each other’s level for the majority of an exciting first half. Led by Mack, who was motivated to embarrass anyone assigned to guard him, the Huskers shot 50 percent from the field and went 5-of-11 from deep. The Wolverines nearly matched them, shooting 47 percent from the field and 4-of-13 from deep.
The only separation Michigan was able to gain came near the end of the half, where a pair of Nebraska fouls sent the Wolverines to the free throw line for four straight points. A one-point game turned into an eight-point Michigan cushion after Brooks buried a three.
Luckily for Nebraska, a layup from Teske left 4.5 seconds for Hoiberg to burn a use-it-or-lose-it timeout, which set up Mack taking the rock coast-to-coast for a runner at the buzzer. Another exciting half closed with the Wolverines leading 40-35. It was Nebraska’s fourth consecutive game scoring over 30 points in the first half.
The early stages of the second half have been a serious issue for the Huskers throughout the five-game losing streak, but they came out swinging in front of the home crowd. A three-point play from junior guard Dachon Burke to start the half made it a two-point game, but the Wolverines countered with an 8-3 run.
Once again, Nebraska had an answer from freshman Kevin Cross. The 6-foot-8, 240 lb forward shifted momentum with a 3-pointer, then made a pair of free throws to pull within two. After a layup by Burke, Cross gave Nebraska a 52-50 lead on a jumper with 13:49 left to play.
Cross would finish with 17 points on 6-11 made shots, and earned high praise from Michigan head coach Juwan Howard.
“They [Nebraska] have a big who is dynamic,” Howard said about Cross after the game. “We got a chance to see that tonight. He can make shots from the outside and he can also put the ball on the floor and drive to the basket to finish.”
Cross had an opportunity to push the lead to five, but his next 3-point attempt was off. Two possessions later, after Michigan scored five unanswered to retake the lead, he lost control of the ball and committed two fouls in 13 seconds. Cross was sent to the bench with four fouls, which was less than ideal with 11:33 left.
With Cross on the bench, Michigan capitalized on the momentum it had already started to build. Wagner cut to the rim with ease for a layup after the timeout, pushing the lead to five. Mack would bury a three one minute later to pull Nebraska back within three points, but it wouldn’t get any closer the rest of the game.
Michigan sophomore forward Brandon Johns Jr. countered Mack’s trey with one of his own, and Nebraska junior guard Jervay Green committed two fouls over a 12-second span. The second of the fouls was a fruitless effort against a monster two-handed slam from Johns Jr., who had a five-inch height advantage on Green.
With the game quickly falling apart, Nebraska’s habits reverted back to November struggles. After taking advantage of inexperienced guards in the first half, Nebraska’s backcourt trio had a much tougher time in the second half with Teske or 6-foot-11 sophomore Collin Castleton waiting for them at the rim.
In the second half alone, Nebraska made just five of its 13 attempts at the rim.
“The ball stopped moving,” Hoiberg said about the run. “A couple of possessions never shifted sides and didn't get across, and we had been having pretty good possessions all night long; we were shooting high percentage and shot it well from behind the arc. We missed a couple of layups in that stretch, we missed a couple right at the rim, but then we just took some out of character shots and missed a couple open threes.”
Most of the eight misses came during the five-minute stretch in which Michigan won the game. Meanwhile, the Wolverines made eight of their 10 layup/dunk attempts in the second half.
Starting with the pair of fouls by Cross, the Huskers would commit seven fouls over the span of Michigan’s 19-3 run.
Like so many of Nebraska’s 14 losses this season, a late rally was too little, too late. Trailing 71-56 with 5:47 left, most of the fans at Pinnacle Bank Arena were halfway to their cars when Nebraska snapped out of its funk.
It started with a pair of free throws and a layup from Cheatham, and continued with a three from junior forward Thorir Thorbjarnarson, making it a nine point game with 3:29 left. Cheatham stole the following in-bounds pass, but lost it himself going up for a layup. Freshman guard Charlie Easley stole it right back and passed it to Mack, but his layup rolled off of the rim. The miss led to a fast-break layup for Wagner, essentially ending the run.
As the remaining fans headed to the exits at a late timeout, an ominous graphic flashed across the Pinnacle Bank Arena Jumbotron: Nebraska’s upcoming schedule. It features No. 24 Penn State, No. 18 Iowa, and No. 15 Maryland up next, followed by Wisconsin and No. 14 Michigan State.
“I think we’re at a point where we’ve got to go all out,” Cheatham said after the loss. “Right now we’re in a tough stretch. We’ve got to pull together over these next 10 games instead of pulling apart, and compete 40 minutes straight.”
January is the longest month of the college basketball season, both in length and workload. And it can’t end fast enough for Nebraska.