Akol Arop

Nebraska’s Akol Arop (0) runs with the ball during the Huskers’ matchup against Penn State at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Saturday, Feb. 1, 2020, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

It wasn’t sophomore guard Cam Mack’s night.

For the third consecutive game, Mack wasn’t his usual self, shooting 1-10 from the field. He finished with four points, eight assists and three turnovers. An early 3-pointer from Mack that went long led to the student section at the Xfinity Center hounding him with “air ball” chants for a majority of the game.

But for a moment, none of that mattered. No. 9 Maryland was in the process of handing Nebraska one of the biggest upset victories of the season, blowing a late 71-64 lead capped by senior guard Anthony Cowan Jr. missing the front end of a one-and-one with 12 seconds left. 

Moments before this, freshman forward Kevin Cross, who also had an off night, knocked down a 3-pointer to cut Maryland’s lead to 71-67. It was his only field goal of the game. After a free throw from senior guard Haanif Cheatham cut Maryland’s lead to three, Mack silenced the hostile Terrapin crowd with two made free throws to make it 71-70 half a second before Cowan Jr.’s miss. 

A Maryland (20-4, 10-3 Big Ten) team that led by as many as 14 points in the second half found itself leading by one, and losing its first home game all season looked like a legitimate possibility. Nebraska needed to make a winning play, and off of Cowan’s missed free throw Mack took the ball and planned to make it.

Mack left Cowan in the dust with a nice crossover and took the ball into the paint, but his effort was turned away by sophomore forward Jalen Smith. Smith iced the game at the line with 0.7 seconds left, and the Terrapins escaped with a 72-70 victory. 

Big-time players want the ball in their hands late in games, and Mack certainly qualifies in that category. But the fact that Nebraska (7-17, 2-11 Big Ten) found itself in this position is a testament to this team’s fight, even as the Huskers’ losing streak increases to nine games. 

To start the second half, a game like this didn’t seem anywhere near the realm of possibility. Junior guard Thorir Thorbjarnarson was the only Nebraska player to accomplish anything productive offensively to that point, leading an abysmal first-half Husker offense with 10 points. 

Nebraska had shot 27% from the field, 15% from 3-point range and had no answer for Smith and Cowan Jr. in the first 20 minutes. Most importantly, Nebraska faced a 38-25 deficit. 

However, much like Nebraska’s upset victory on Jan. 7 over Iowa, it didn’t really matter. Just like Garza and Wieskamp had big nights in a Hawkeye loss, Smith and Cowan Jr. dominated and it almost didn’t matter. Smith posted his seventh-consecutive double-double with 16 points and 13 rebounds on 7-10 shooting. 

Cowan Jr. had 13, but nine of those points came from the free-throw line. He did get to the rim at ease, and also completed a double-double with 10 assists.

The Huskers came back in the face of that adversity thanks to the play of senior guard Haanif Cheatham, who turned in a superhuman second-half performance despite playing on a bad calf. Cheatham led all scorers with 20 points, 18 of which came in the second half. 

Cheatham and another unexpected hero, senior guard Matej Kavas, pulled the Huskers back when it appeared the Terrapins were about to step on the Huskers’ neck. Freshman forward Donta Scott stepped outside and knocked down a 3-pointer to give Maryland a 54-42 lead with 12:02 left. It looked as if Nebraska just couldn’t cut into Maryland’s lead, and it felt like the Huskers were about to fall flat and let the Terrapins run away with the contest.

A Kavas 3-pointer sparked a 7-0 run to flip that narrative. After Maryland extended its lead to 56-49, a Cheatham 3-pointer and a layup by junior guard Jervay Green cut the lead to 56-54 in front of a stunned home crowd.

The Terrapins fought back in an effort to silence Nebraska’s upset bid, and sophomore guard Eric Ayala had three of his 16 points come on a shot to give Maryland a 64-54 lead with 4:49 left. 

Cheatham responded again, scoring eight straight points for Nebraska to bring it back to a 66-62 contest with 2:24 remaining. A 3-pointer from junior guard Darryl Morsell helped Maryland extend its lead again to 71-64 with 1:13 left, and Nebraska couldn’t complete the comeback from there.

While Nebraska now has lost nine games in a row, this game proved that this team still appears to have more confidence than anyone originally thought.

Nebraska could’ve laid down after falling behind by 14 points for the ninth game in a row. Cross could’ve passed up a late 3-pointer to cut into Maryland’s lead as he was 1-9 from the field and 0-5 from 3-point range. And Mack could’ve deflected any and all criticism by opting to not have the ball in his hands when it mattered most.

But nobody on the Huskers’ roster shied away from the moment, an impressive task considering the Huskers were without the services of junior guard Dachon Burke Jr.. And yes, little things like finishing at the rim and limiting bad shots can be improved—but the Huskers still turned in another impressive performance in a lost season.

Nebraska will look to build on this performance when it hosts Wisconsin on Feb. 15. Tipoff is at 1:15 p.m. and the game will be on Big Ten Network.