It was a bounce back night for Nebraska basketball.
An impressive shooting performance, an outstanding bench output and improved ball movement made for a solid rebound in Nebraska’s 78-60 win over Idaho State on Friday night.
The Huskers not only got the victory, but also did it in style with the debut of new gray and red Players Edition uniforms.
Freshman forward Wilhelm Breidenbach didn’t seem too phased by the change.
“I just see a jersey in my locker and I just put it on,” Breidenbach said postgame.
Friday’s game was a complete performance according to Nebraska head coach Fred Hoiberg.
“From start to finish, tonight was definitely our best game since we started the regular season,” Hoiberg said postgame.
Nebraska’s first six points of the game came from scorers held off the scoreboard on Tuesday night. Junior forward Derrick Walker Jr. knocked down back-to-back buckets out of the gate and newly minted starter freshman guard Keon Edwards added a layup to give the Huskers an early 6-3 lead.
“To get him (Walker) going a little bit is big for our team because he was so good in the preseason,” Hoiberg said.
The 3-pointers fell early and often for the Bengals. The first 12 points for Idaho State came from beyond the arc on 4-of-6 shooting. The first Bengal points inside 20 feet came at the charity stripe with 13:02 to play in the half. Two free throws by Idaho State junior guard Austin Smellie gave the Bengals a 14-13 lead.
Hoiberg touched on some of the miscues in the 3-point defense.
“Early on we were going to double team to try and create deflections and be aggressive, and they burned us on it,” Hoiberg said.
The Husker bench was quick to respond. Nebraska freshman guard CJ Wilcher knocked down a 3-pointer, Breidenbach knocked down two more and sophomore guard Keisei Tominaga made an acrobatic finish at the rim to give Nebraska its largest lead of the game. The Huskers scored 11 unanswered points in just over two minutes to take a 24-14 lead with ten minutes to play in the half.
“All those guys I thought made a huge impact on the game,” Hoiberg said. “When they went in, the pace really changed.”
Ball movement was an emphasis for Nebraska’s bench players as they checked in.
“When the ball sticks, I think we all go our own separate ways and it makes it a lot tougher to play in a rhythm,” Breidenbach said. “You saw what happened when we moved it, everyone got involved.”
Wilcher provided a different perspective.
“You feel like you’re a part of the game,” Wilcher said. “Even if we’re not knocking down shots, we’re moving the ball and getting good shots.”
The 3-pointers continued to fall like manna from heaven for the Bengals. It seemed that each time Nebraska would start to pull away, Idaho State would have a downtown answer. The Huskers struggled to create quality possessions and the Bengals drew ever closer. The 10-point Nebraska lead was down to four at 35-31 with 2:15 to play in the half.
After scoring just six points against Creighton on Tuesday, freshman guard Bryce McGowens was quiet again earning his first points on a tip-in with 3:04 to play in the half. Nebraska’s first trip to the free-throw line came with 1:33 to play in the half.
Despite all of that, Nebraska closed the half on a 6-0 run to regain a ten point advantage, 41-31. The Huskers executed on the final scoring opportunity of the half when senior guard Kobe Webster drove to his left and found a crashing Walker for a slam on the right. With that dunk, Walker became the Husker’s leading scorer at the half with nine points.
“Kobe gives us great stability out there because he has been in the system and knows how to get us moving,” Hoiberg said.
Idaho State did not score over the final 2:47 of the half and went to the intermission shooting 7-of-19 from 3-point range. Of the 26 field goal attempts in the half for the Bengals, only seven were inside the arc. Leading the way for Idaho State was junior guard Robert Ford III with eight points.
McGowens and the Huskers started the second half in thrilling fashion. Senior guard Alonzo Verge Jr. found McGowens for an alley-oop and the Huskers were off and running.
The initial effort on the defensive end was less than inspiring. Two early Bengal buckets in the paint followed by a wide open 3-point jumper for senior guard Tarik Cool cut the Husker lead to 45-38.
But much like Creighton on Tuesday night, each time Idaho State would start to chip into the Husker lead, Nebraska would answer. After the bucket by Cool, Walker was there on the other end for a 3-point play of his own, converting after the foul and draining his opportunity at the line.
Nebraska began to pull away around the 13:00 mark of the second half. Taking advantage of a three-minute Bengal scoring drought, Nebraska scored 10 in a row, including two tough layups by Webster. The Huskers had a 18-point advantage under twelve minutes to go at 58-40.
Then the 3-pointers began to fall once more for the Bengals. Back-to-back makes for Idaho State cut the Husker lead to twelve at 58-46. But again, Nebraska was able to string together stops and scores. Back-to-back assists from Verge to Wilcher and Breidenbach gave Nebraska its largest lead of the game at 64-46 with 9:45 to play.
The Huskers would grow the lead from there. A 6-0 Nebraska run featuring two jumpers in the paint by Verge gave the Huskers a 73-50 lead with 5:35 remaining in the game. A 3-pointer for Tominaga cleared the Nebraska bench bringing in most of the second unit with 4:46 to go.
Nebraska closed the game out strong winning by 18 and improving their record to 2-2. Four Huskers were in double figures including Wilcher with ten points, Tominaga and Verge with 11 points and Walker leading all scorers with 14.
The Husker bench finished the night with 37 points compared to just 12 for Idaho State. Two of the four Huskers in double figures came off the bench in Wilcher and Tominaga, with Breidenbach just behind with nine points.
According to Hoiberg, the second group did a great job of identifying transition opportunities and finding open shooters.
“Night and day from where it was, especially in the first half early the other night,” Hoiberg said.
Wilcher sees his role on the bench as providing a spark.
“Me and Will (Breidenbach) being guys on the bench we had to provide a spark in some type of way,” Wilcher said.
“You gotta bring the energy,” Breidenbach said. “That’s just the pride we take is to lock in on the minute things that don’t go on the stat line whether it’s rotating on defense or boxing out.”
One of the biggest things the Huskers improved on was rebounding, Hoiberg said. The Huskers tied the Bengals in that category with 31 rebounds apiece. This is the first time this season that Nebraska has not had a negative rebound differential. The smallest of which was a five-board deficit against Sam Houston State.
“To get that thing off the glass and to get out and push in transition, that’s certainly where we are at our best,” Hoiberg said.
The change for Breidenbach came from starting the action.
“Just hitting someone first initiating contact made a world of difference,” Breidenbach said.
After a primarily positive outing, Hoiberg noted the value of results when making the right choices.
“It’s important to see that when we play the right way that good things happen,” Hoiberg said. “We can build off this one and get some confidence going into the next one.”