It happened so fast that hardly anyone on-hand at Pinnacle Bank Arena knew what took place until it was too late.
Nebraska, even after a stellar first half, led just 60-53 over South Dakota with 11:35 remaining following a jumper from Coyote junior guard Kruz Perrot-Hunt. On the Huskers’ ensuing possession, freshman guard CJ Wilcher canned a huge 3-pointer to reassert Nebraska’s double-digit advantage.
Then, almost instantaneously, sophomore guard Keisei Tominaga picked off the ensuing South Dakota inbounds pass, which resulted in a lightning-fast five-point swing to put Nebraska up 65-53.
Almost nobody saw it, and it took nearly a minute to properly update the score on the in-house scoreboard.
“I don’t even think anybody saw it,” Nebraska men’s basketball head coach Fred Hoiberg said postgame. “The announcer didn’t say ‘Keisei’ and it took a little while but yeah, really heady play by Keisei.”
That spark was all Nebraska needed, with the Huskers using the momentum shift to go on a 15-0 run, pushing their lead to as many as 22 points with 6:25 remaining. After Tominaga’s steal, Nebraska’s eventual 83-70 victory over South Dakota was never in doubt.
Despite giving up 35 points in both halves in a Husker defensive effort that, on its face, could be viewed as a negative, Tominaga’s steal was the first of five forced turnovers during the scoring run that helped stop South Dakota’s upset bid in its tracks.
Nebraska forced 18 total turnovers on the afternoon.
“I thought we got better as the game went on,” Hoiberg said of his team’s defensive performance. “I thought we had a really good stretch there where we ran [South Dakota] off the line and had much better closeouts. Still not good enough early in the game, obviously.”
While Nebraska’s defense certainly faltered over the opening 20 minutes before correcting itself in the second half, the Husker offense performed nearly the opposite. It wasn’t quite that simple, though.
The Huskers opened the game extremely similarly to their last contest against Tennessee State, building an early 11-3 lead over the game’s opening minutes, led by seven early points from freshman guard Bryce McGowens. Drawing further similarities to Tuesday, Nebraska promptly had that lead erased by a South Dakota scoring run featuring the greatest hits of Hoiberg’s teams at Nebraska — second-chance points and poor perimeter defense the main culprits.
Nebraska battled back after conceding a 13-0 scoring run, but it seemed like South Dakota had an answer for nearly everything the Huskers tried to do offensively. Down 21-16 with 10:27 remaining in the first half, the affair had all the makings of another rather uncomfortable Nebraska showing against an inferior opponent.
That is, until Tominaga checked into the game.
The fan-favorite guard and Nagoya, Aichi in Japan native had his much-anticipated breakthrough on Saturday. Tominaga finished with a game-high 23 points on 8-of-11 shooting, with 13 coming in the final 10 minutes of the first half after he checked in. His performance opened up Nebraska’s offense, essentially, and sparked a rally that culminated in Nebraska holding a 43-35 halftime lead.
Tominaga instantly went to work when he initially checked in, knocking down two 3-pointers in quick succession. He also proved effective making great baseline cuts, and even fired two assists to junior forward Derrick Walker.
All told, the performance was a much-needed one from the guard. Following a difficult start to the season, Tominaga appears to have asserted himself as a vital member of Nebraska’s rotation going forward if Saturday is any indication.
“I was kinda nervous in the beginning year, I had too much power in my shooting,” Tominaga said postgame. “I’m just relaxing a little bit more.”
Figuring out what made Nebraska’s offense so successful, and how it can be maintained going forward, is the biggest takeaway following what ultimately became a comfortable Husker victory — and Nebraska’s first four-game winning streak under Hoiberg.
It may require more from McGowens, who had a stellar performance in his own right. He finished the contest with 22 points on 6-of-12 shooting, along with nine rebounds and four assists. As the freshman gains more familiarity and comfortability at the collegiate level, he’s being asked to serve more in a role his older brother, junior guard Trey McGowens, knows very well: Nebraska’s primary ball handler.
“I feel comfortable knowing that the next player is going to make a play out of the play that I make,” Bryce McGowens said postgame. “I am feeling really comfortable in the role.”
Nebraska, in this stretch, largely did what was expected of it. Ripping off four consecutive wins following a frustrating loss to Creighton was certainly an expectation, but not completely a given as seen in the Huskers' season-opening loss to Western Illinois.
Now, ready or not, Nebraska is going to get tested again. Top 100 teams, according to kenpom.com, make up the Huskers’ next four opponents including two AP Top 25 teams in Michigan and Auburn.
Still, the Huskers’ four-game stretch was certainly beneficial and productive, and perhaps a potential building block for what’s to come.
“We are getting better, we are growing as a basketball team,” Hoiberg said. “[Guys] are starting to figure each other out, much better than we were the first couple of games, and we had our best stretch of basketball. There’s no doubt about it.”