Men's basketball vs. Ohio State Photo No. 2

Nebraska’s coach Fred Hoiberg speaks to an official during the game against Ohio State at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Sunday, Jan. 2, 2022, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Nebraska men’s basketball was millimeters away from rectifying any and all past transgression.

The stage was set up all-too perfectly, almost picturesque for the Huskers to finally secure a statement victory under head coach Fred Hoiberg. Nebraska had yet to beat a ranked opponent under the former Iowa State head coach, with the last coming in March of 2019. 

Coming off of a three-week pause due to COVID-19, and forced to play a road game immediately after the holidays no less, No. 13 Ohio State appeared an ideal target. And, lo and behold, it appeared a long-awaited signature victory was finally materializing. 

After trailing for just over 30 minutes of Sunday night’s Big Ten showdown, Nebraska had its breakthrough. Junior forward Derrick Walker, Nebraska’s talisman down the stretch against the Buckeyes, bullied Ohio State sophomore forward Zed Key inside for a bruising layup, putting Nebraska up 68-65 with 3:16 remaining. 

Then, pandemonium. Junior forward Lat Mayen hit the side of the backboard with a corner 3-pointer, then immediately cleaned up a Walker miss inside to put the Huskers up 70-65. After an Ohio State basket, senior guard Kobe Webster found a cutting Mayen for an emphatic dunk, one that sent Pinnacle Bank Arena into a frenzy.

“I haven’t experienced that type of environment yet in college, so it was dope for me personally to have the fans behind us like they did,” freshman guard CJ Wilcher said postgame. “It was a good environment to play in.”

Victory, finally, became tangible for Nebraska and its fans. Nebraska led Ohio State 72-67 with 36 seconds remaining. Ohio State would need a near-perfect stretch of play and a fantastic Husker collapse to even have a shot. Hoiberg’s team had the game firmly in its grasp.

It was all too good to be true.

Following Mayen’s assault on the rim, the Buckeyes drilled a quick 3-pointer to cut Nebraska’s lead to 72-70. Nebraska still held a massive edge, though, as senior guard Jamari Wheeler’s 3-pointer came with just 27 seconds remaining. Ohio State had to either foul or force a Husker turnover to stay alive.

What Ohio State got was even better. Mayen, who seconds prior was Nebraska’s savior, became the scapegoat. Mayen was fouled and missed two consecutive free throws, leaving the door wide open for the Buckeyes to pounce. Junior forward EJ Liddell picked up a critical offensive rebound on the ensuing possession before Mayen fouled him on his putback attempt. 

Liddell made both free throws. Then, Nebraska’s final possession came up short. Everything that needed to happen to swing the game in the Buckeyes’ favor did with one horrifying moment after another.

“We still had obviously great chances to win that game,” Hoiberg said postgame. “We aren’t about moral victories and it still is extremely disappointing in that locker room but that shows what we are capable of.”

From there, Nebraska was essentially cooked. Wilcher said the team “came out a little dead” in the extra period, which might be an understatement. The Huskers were 2-of-7 from the field in overtime as their offense went largely stagnant. Consecutive 3-pointers from Wheeler and freshman guard Meechie Johnson Jr. set the tone for what would become a comfortable Buckeye victory.

Nebraska got within three points following a 3-pointer from freshman guard Bryce McGowens to cut Ohio State’s lead to 78-75 with 2:32 remaining in overtime, but that was the best that things got for the Huskers. To add insult to injury, the Buckeyes iced the contest by going 4-of-4 from the free throw line. 

The Huskers’ collapse is obviously frustrating for a multiple of reasons, chief among them that Nebraska spoiled a brilliant defensive gameplan. Liddell and Key comprise one of the more fearsome frontcourt tandems in college basketball, but Nebraska held both in check.

Liddell posted a season-low 10 points on a brutal 2-of-14 shooting, largely held in check by Mayen and Walker inside. Key had seven points on 3-of-5 from the field. Nebraska forced 16 turnovers, frequently disrupting Ohio State’s inside-out offensive attack.

“The biggest thing when you play Ohio State is their physicality and that’s what concerns you the most, and our team did an unbelievable job of matching that especially early,” Hoiberg said. 

Buckeye freshman guard Malaki Branham filled the apparent offensive void brilliantly. In yet another instance of a guard torching Nebraska in the 2021-22 season, Branham exploded for 35 points on 13-of-19 shooting. He knocked down six 3-pointers and was the go-to option when Ohio State needed points. 

Branham got going from the jump with a remarkable 21 points in the first half, which helped Ohio State build multiple early eight-point leads. Nebraska had no answers for the Columbus, Ohio native, just as it didn’t have answers for North Carolina State sophomore guard Dereon Seabron earlier in the season.

“We knew there were going to be some opportunities for some other guys because of how [Nebraska’s defense] were going to collapse on Zed and EJ,” Ohio State men’s basketball head coach Chris Holtmann said postgame. “It created some opportunities for Malaki, and he took advantage of it.”

It all resulted in another disappointing loss and a feeling all-too familiar for Nebraska men’s basketball over the last few years. While Branham was mobbed with a mini-water bath at midcourt after leading his team to a scintillating victory, the few Nebraska fans that remained could only look on in disgust. 

Someday, maybe even someday soon, these moments will become commonplace for Nebraska. One could argue that Sunday night could’ve — and should’ve — been the opportunity for Hoiberg to claim a signature victory and provide his team with sorely needed momentum. 

It wasn’t to be, though. Nebraska only has itself to blame.

sports@dailynebraskan.com