While head coach Fred Hoiberg’s squad may pose more depth than it did a season ago, Nebraska’s growing pains are still apparent.
This was especially true on Wednesday night, as Nebraska fell to Georgia Tech for the second consecutive season in the Big Ten/ACC challenge. The Huskers’ 75-64 defeat was closer than Nebraska’s 17-point loss to the Yellow Jackets a season ago, a testament to the improving quality of Hoiberg’s bunch.
These Huskers have solid returning pieces that contribute heavily in the rotation, a bevvy of sitout transfers with a year’s worth of experience in Hoiberg’s system and a variety of talented scorers and junior college transfers.
However nights like tonight, nights where Nebraska fell apart down the stretch on both ends of the ball, proves that while the Huskers might be moving in the right direction, this group is far from a finished product.
Perhaps the most disappointing element of the Huskers’ loss is that some of the same problems a Hoiberg-coached Nebraska team had last year reared its ugly head when it mattered most. While this year’s roster is almost entirely different from last year’s, tried-and-true Nebraska issues like defensive rebounding, turnovers and poor free-throw shooting came back to bite the Huskers.
Nebraska took a brief lead in a back-and-forth second half when junior guard Trey McGowens knocked down one of his two free throws. It gave the Huskers a 52-51 lead over Georgia Tech with just over seven minutes remaining.
On the Yellow Jackets’ ensuing trip down the floor, sophomore guard Kyle Sturdivant missed the mark on a 3-pointer. Nebraska was unable to corral the rebound, and the ball found its way to senior guard Jose Alvarado, who buried the open triple to give Georgia Tech a 54-52 lead.
The Yellow Jackets didn’t lose the lead for the remainder of the contest.
The go-ahead triple signaled the start of a furious scoring run for Alvarado. Following a turnover by Husker senior guard Kobe Webster, he drilled another 3-pointer to extend Georgia Tech’s lead to five. What felt like the dagger came with Georgia Tech’s advantage still sitting at five with just over four minutes remaining in the second half. A missed Alvarado 3-pointer was hauled in by senior forward Moses Wright, and kicked back out to Alvarado for a backbreaking triple that gave the Yellow Jackets a seemingly insurmountable 64-56 advantage.
Georgia Tech’s experienced duo of Alvarado and Wright took over the game in the second half, which ultimately led to the Huskers’ downfall. The two combined for 30 second-half points, and consistently made winning plays down the stretch that demoralized Nebraska. That, combined with the Huskers’ own ineptitude in the game’s closing minutes, ultimately was what frustrated Hoiberg the most.
“In a tight game like that, you can’t allow that to happen,” Hoiberg said postgame. “You can’t give them the momentum and the confidence to finish this off.”
Hoiberg did call Nebraska’s late-game flaws “correctable,” but it didn’t make them any less disheartening, especially given the position the Huskers had put themselves in leading up into the game’s closing minutes.
Nebraska and Georgia Tech played a first half that was only entertaining in spurts. The Huskers turned the ball over 12 times, including four from normally sure-handed sophomore guard Dalano Banton. Banton was still Nebraska’s most dynamic playmaker in the opening 20 minutes, however, as the sophomore guard tallied seven points, five rebounds and three assists.
The Yellow Jackets entered the intermission with a 32-30 lead, but neither side was particularly impressive. Georgia Tech managed to shoot at a 40.6% clip from the field but managed to shoot just 21.4% from 3-point range. Nebraska, meanwhile, shot a pedestrian 34.5% from the field and 35.7% from 3-point range.
Webster carried a majority of Nebraska’s 3-point shooting burden on Wednesday night, finishing with a team-high 20 points on 7-of-9 shooting. Six of his field goals came from 3-point range, but Nebraska managed just two 3-pointers outside of Webster’s efforts. Taking Webster’s outing out of the picture, Nebraska shot a brutal 2-of-16 from behind the arc.
Still, the Huskers put themselves in a decent position to come away with the victory. Junior guard Teddy Allen came alive early in the second half after a scoreless first, scoring 8 early points to give Nebraska a 40-34 lead with 15:21 remaining.
Nebraska maintained a four-point advantage entering a timeout with just under 14 minutes to play, but during that brief break Georgia Tech head coach Josh Pastner opted to make an unique personnel decision that flipped the balance of the game.
With 13:51 remaining, Pastner put Alvarado, Wright, Sturdivant senior guard Bubba Parham and junior forward Khalid Moore on the floor. Georgia Tech was trailing 43-39 before the move. He didn’t alter the Yellow Jacket’s lineup for the remainder of the contest, and Georgia Tech’s group outscored the Huskers 34-21 over that stretch.
The Huskers went back-and-forth with Georgia Tech for some of that stretch. Two Webster 3-pointers and four points from Banton helped Nebraska at least hold serve at the beginning of the Yellow Jackets’ run, but Alvarado and Wright proved too much for the Huskers to handle.
“I think for about 33 minutes, we were solid on both ends of the floor,” Webster said. “Just after that eight-minute mark in the second half, we gave up two offensive rebounds and two back-to-back threes and that was kind of when we started to separate a little bit.”
One of the more concerning storylines to emerge postgame was the fact that both Webster and Hoiberg mentioned that, when the Huskers were faced with adversity late in the second half, Nebraska folded instead of rallying. Hoiberg said that he didn’t see the issue arise from this group previously this season.
“I thought [our mental toughness] was really good for a stretch when we took the lead after being down at halftime,” Hoiberg said. “But when they got the momentum, I just saw us splinter a little bit. For the first time, I didn’t see that same togetherness.”
Hoiberg said that Webster played an important role in uplifting a “dejected locker room” following Wednesday’s loss. And if the loss to Georgia Tech bothered guys like Allen and McGowens as much as it appeared, Nebraska will need to have short-term memory.
The Huskers have a monumental chance to right the ship on Friday against a No. 8 Creighton squad looking to rebound from a one-point loss to Kansas on Tuesday. Last year against the Bluejays, the Huskers were embarrassed in a game that was nowhere near as close as the 95-76 final suggested.
Nebraska can ill-afford to shut down against a team like Creighton when the going gets tough, meaning that the Huskers will have to do a complete 180 to get themselves mentally ready to play. It’s a daunting challenge but it’s one that Hoiberg, Webster and the other leaders of the team will need to take on.
“We’ve got to try to lift their spirits, put it behind us and get ready to go,” Hoiberg said. “And hopefully we’ll play a complete game on Friday, we’re going to have to.”