Mayen 11.23

Nebraska’s Lat Mayen (11) attempts a 3-pointer during the game against Tennessee State at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Pinnacle Bank Arena had seen this movie before. 

Nine times in the opening 20 minutes, in fact.

With Tennessee State junior guard Dedric Boyd on the ball amazingly in acres of space as the first-half clock wound down, the outcome seemed obvious. Tied at 38 with seconds remaining, a wide-open Boyd fired from 3-point range attempting to hand the visitors a shocking halftime lead.

The crowd on hand let out an audible groan when the ball was released. Those groans only intensified when Boyd’s 3-pointer, his fifth and Tennessee State’s 10th of the opening half, found nylon as time expired.

A stunned Nebraska squad found itself down 41-38 at halftime to the No. 323 team in Division I according to kenpom.com, to a Tennessee State team that made just three two-point field goals in the opening 20 minutes.

“In the first half we weren’t talking, communicating, we weren’t playing the ball as we should,” freshman guard Bryce McGowens said postgame of the Tigers 10-of-19 performance from 3-point range. “In the second half we came out a little more intense and talked more.”

Nebraska’s second-half intensity was certainly needed, staving off a feisty Tennessee State squad 79-73 on Tuesday night. In a rather disjointed performance, the Huskers kept the Tigers at bay thanks to a strong defensive performance in the second half, all totaling Nebraska’s third victory in a row — the longest of head coach Fred Hoiberg’s tenure in Lincoln.

While Tennessee State’s 3-point shooting eventually leveled off to around its season average, Nebraska’s 3-point shooting average fell below its strikingly low average of 26.6%. The Huskers managed to shoot just 6-of-25 from distance, continuing their early-season trend of poor shooting performances.

“I’m confident we’re going to get it going,” Hoiberg said postgame of his team’s slow start from behind the arc. “We have too many guys that have shot it well, we’ve statted everything back all the way back to our live action in June, most of ‘em shot over 40%.”

Nebraska boasts a cornucopia of established 3-point shooters on its roster, yet just one posted an above-average night from long range. Freshman guard CJ Wilcher, the only Husker to make multiple 3-pointers on the night, went 3-of-7 from deep.

Two of those three came at extremely vital junctures in the contest.

After the Huskers raced out to an early 13-3 lead, Tennessee State battled back with an impressive 14-1 run to hold a three-point lead over the Huskers with 12:17 remaining in the first half. Boyd made two 3-pointers during the stretch to spur the Tigers onward, a trend that continued for the entirety of the first half.

“We knew 20 [Boyd] could shoot the ball, so we wanted to get him to put the ball on the ground,” senior guard Alonzo Verge Jr. said postgame. “We weren’t doing that in the first half.”

Nebraska and Tennessee State went back-and-forth following the Tiger run, with neither team holding an advantage greater than three points heading into halftime. From there, the teams only continued to go blow-for-blow.

In response to the Huskers’ second half adjustments, which included changing their pick-and-roll coverage according to Hoiberg, the Tigers began operating inside the arc. To their credit, the Tigers made some extremely difficult shots to maintain the lead, and a layup from junior guard Carlos Marshall Jr. gave Tennessee State a 52-49 advantage with 13:01 remaining. 

“[Tennessee State] hit some tough ones,” Hoiberg said.

After McGowens chipped away at the Tiger lead with a couple of free throws, Wilcher connected on a 3-pointer to give the Huskers a 56-54 lead. The play was brilliantly drawn up out of the under-12 media timeout by Hoiberg, who used a screen and ball reversal to find an open Wilcher for the go-ahead basket.

Then, with Nebraska up 58-56 about three minutes later, Verge found Wilcher in the bottom corner. Wilcher did a quick shimmy to free himself and completely dupe his defender, then fired and sank another 3-pointer that extended the Husker lead to five points for the first time since the early stages of the first half.

Tennessee State cut into the lead multiple times from there, but could only slash the Huskers’ advantage to two points. Wilcher finished with 15 points, good for fourth-best among Nebraska players, but the impact he had on Tuesday’s contest was immense.

“He’s really been a rock for us out there,” Hoiberg said of Wilcher. “He’s obviously one of our best shooters and he’s very confident. The one he hit in the corner was a huge shot.”

After the Tigers cut Nebraska’s lead to 63-61 with 6:06 remaining, Verge responded immediately with a layup and assist to junior forward Derrick Walker — one of Verge’s career-high 10 dimes on the night.

Nebraska built an advantage as great as 10 points in the game’s closing stages thanks to two Verge free throws, but five quick points from Boyd gave the Tigers one final lifeline down 72-67 with 1:15 remaining. However, McGowens iced the game with clutch free throws down the stretch to cement a Husker victory.

The Huskers enter a brief Thanksgiving hiatus riding a three-game winning streak. However, the glaring caveat is that all three wins ranked 250th or below according to kenpom.com. In fact, Nebraska has yet to defeat a squad the website ranks in the top-200 of Division I college basketball. 

Hoiberg and his team aren’t panicking, though. After all, it’s only November. 

“We haven’t even reached nowhere near what we’re going to be,” Verge said. “We have so much talent, as you can see any day can be anybody’s day. So, you know, I believe in my guys.”

sports@dailynebraskan.com