Shortly after the final buzzer sealed Nebraska’s first upset win of the Fred Hoiberg era, equipment manager Pat Norris quickly made his way through the throng of children and administrators like a running back trying to find a seam, holding the game ball tightly to his chest.
In so many ways, this one was more meaningful than most.
It may have been the ball used in Hoiberg’s first Big Ten Conference win as Nebraska’s coach, but this is a rock that won’t end up on some shelf in his office.
Instead, the package was meant for point guard Cam Mack. The eccentric sophomore that was the crown jewel of a hastily constructed recruiting class posted the first triple double in program history, as his 11 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists led the Huskers (5-6, 1-1) to a convincing 70-56 victory over Purdue (6-4, 1-1).
“You know you’ve got a really good point guard when they make really tough plays look easy, and that’s what Cam does,” Hoiberg said after the win. “He’s a guy that will look one way and he knows where he’s making the pass, but he’s looking the other way so the no-look plays that he can make and sometimes that triggers another action.”
A chip that had been growing on the shoulders of the Nebraska basketball program over the opening month of the season was released in emphatic fashion on a snowy Sunday afternoon at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Written off and mostly forgotten about by most of the college basketball world after one month, the frustration was clear throughout the team as it endured the growing pains of adding 13 new players to the roster.
Fred Hoiberg took the brunt of the criticism, especially from national media members that held his predecessor in high regard. Mack had been responding publicly to Tweets from opposing fan bases questioning his decision to transfer to Nebraska.
After the humiliation at Creighton last week, he posted a picture of him with his mother on Instagram with the caption “I keep letting you down.”
Eight days later it was Mack who kept picking his team up when moments got tense, and kept Nebraska in front for nearly 34 of the 40 minutes played. In their thorough dissection of KenPom’s fifth-most efficient defense, the Huskers found solid evidence that their coaches are worth trusting.
“We have come a long way,” Junior guard Dachon Burke Jr. said after scoring 18 points in the win. “I feel like this year has been a rollercoaster, but we’re at a point now that everyone is just buying in. We just come in with each other. Buying into the coaches, watching film with coach, watching reads and just buying in with the team, the coaching staff because it is all we have. We are just going to build on this.”
“If we could have come back and won this game, it would have been a shame,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “I thought Nebraska played harder than us and were more ready to play. For a team that played Friday night on the road, you’d think it’d be the [opposite]. Give Nebraska credit. I thought those guys were hooked up and they played hard.”
Sunday’s matchup had an eerily familiar feeling, with a blizzard keeping around half of the seats empty in Nebraska’s first home game in over three weeks. Last season, an even worse blizzard moved up the tip time of Nebraska’s home game against Purdue.
The game started in a predictable fashion, with Purdue’s 7-foot-3’ center Matt Haarms winning the opening tip and knocking down an easy basket in the paint. But Nebraska immediately set the tone for this game, as junior guard Thorir Thorbjarnarson knocked down a 3-pointer to open Nebraska’s scoring.
Before the game, Hoiberg set a goal for the team to force Purdue to call the first timeout of the game. After a pair of dunks from Burke Jr. and an easy dunk from freshman forward Yvan Ouedraogo, Painter burned his first one just three minutes in, trailing 9-2.
Purdue responded in typical Boilermaker fashion, showing why Ken Pomeroy’s metrics have their defense ranked fifth in defensive efficiency. Nebraska was held scoreless for the next seven minutes of the game, as Purdue rallied to take a 14-12 lead.
The game changed completely with 11:17 left in the first half, as Purdue’s best defender, junior guard Nojel Eastern, was sent to the bench with two fouls. With him out of the game, Purdue went nearly four minutes without a basket, and Nebraska’s offense regained its footing and went on a 17-6 run to take a commanding 29-18 lead.
A 3-pointer from Mack with 27 seconds left in the half sent the Huskers to the break leading 34-23.
Purdue’s intensity on both sides of the ball increased immediately in the second half. The Boilermakers were guarding players closer and the bench was highly vocal anytime the defense made a stop. Haarms began to take over the game, exploiting his massive size advantage in multiple ways.
The junior only attempted two shots and had no rebounds, but the double teams he drew led to a huge second half for fellow big man Trevion Williams. While Haarms handled both Ouedraogo and freshman forward Kevin Cross, Williams feasted on size advantages over Nebraska’s four guards and had 12 points and 10 rebounds in the second half alone.
On defense, Haarms kept Purdue in the game with a pair of blocks, and with eight minutes left, Purdue was within two and Nebraska had been scoreless for four minutes once again.
But the game changed for good with a loud thud, as a foul from Wheeler sent Nebraska freshman Charlie Easley directly under a jumping Harms, who quickly went from vertical to horizontal and landed head-first on the hardwood.
After laying motionless on the court for several minutes, he was helped off the court and wobbled his way back to the locker room. Painter said afterwards that he is currently in concussion protocol.
With the injury fresh in the players’ minds, Purdue’s intensity had diminished and Nebraska took advantage with a 9-2 run to take a 63-52 lead with three minutes left. One minute later, Mack corralled his ninth rebound of the game, made a defender miss and fired a dart to Burke for an emphatic dunk, sealing the win.
With 41 seconds left, Mack pulled in his 10th rebound of the game off of a Jahaad Proctor missed 3-pointer, and the crowded Nebraska bench all held up ones to celebrate the triple double. 17 seconds later, Mack exited the game to a standing ovation and hugged every person he could find on the bench.
“[I was] very surprised,” Mack said when he learned it was the first triple double in the men’s program’s history. “There has been a lot of great people to come through Nebraska. And for me to have the first triple-double, just give glory to God.”
In a poetic ending to a much-needed win, Mack went from the post-game press conference to the tunnel by the locker room, where assistant coach Matt Abdelmassih offered him some advice and words of encouragement.
Just eight days earlier, Mack spent the long bus ride back from Omaha responding to tweets criticizing him for de-committing from St. Johns and following Abdelmassih to Nebraska.
A lot can change in eight days.
The Huskers will have a well-earned break for Finals week after playing three games in eight days, and will return to action on Saturday against North Dakota.