These are the games Nebraska hired Fred Hoiberg to win.
Hoiberg and assistant coach Doc Sadler revived the Nebraska squad that played its best basketball of the season against Indiana and Purdue on Tuesday night in a 76-70 victory over a short-handed Iowa squad.
Nebraska (7-8, 2-2 Big Ten) deployed a strategy against the Hawkeyes similar to the one that the Huskers found success with in December’s two conference games—double and triple-team the post and dare opponents to knock down 3-pointers.
It worked to an extent against Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis and better against Purdue’s Matt Haarms and Trevion Williams, but the biggest triumph in Hoiberg and Sadler’s defensive philosophy came on Tuesday night.
This is because Iowa doesn’t just have any big man, it has one of the best big men in the country in 6-foot-11 junior center Luka Garza. The Big Ten’s leading scorer entered Pinnacle Bank Arena averaging 22.5 points per game and 10.1 rebounds per game. Slowing Garza down is much easier said than done, but Nebraska’s inside-out defense confused the Hawkeyes for a majority of the game.
Iowa’s offense struggled early. The Hawkeyes (10-5, 1-3 Big Ten) were missing the contributions of freshman guard CJ Fredrick, who has averaged 10.3 points per game and shot 50% on 3-pointers, and it showed. Iowa showed a complete inability to consistently knock down 3-pointers early.
Nebraska sent double and triple-teams at Garza early, racing out to a 23-11 lead with 8:03 remaining in the first half behind eight points from senior guard Haanif Cheatham. With Garza rendered ineffective, Iowa relied on outside shooting to keep it afloat.
It didn’t work well.
In that same time frame the Hawkeyes went 1-15 from 3-point range, as Nebraska contested nearly everything Iowa shot. Major credit here goes to Cheatham, who ensured that Hawkeye sophomore guard and second-best scoring option Joe Wieskamp got off to an anemic start behind the arc with constant contests of Wieskamp’s long-range efforts.
Wieskamp did lead all scorers with 21 points, but was just 1-10 on the night from 3-point range.
Iowa did respond to Nebraska’s early advantage by playing its best stretch of basketball of the night. For a few minutes, the Hawkeyes appeared to have figured out Nebraska’s defense by moving the ball quickly, attacking with pace and catching the Huskers rotating which led to easy touches for Garza inside. The big man rattled off nine points over a 1:30 stretch to trim Nebraska’s lead to 30-27 with 3:23 to go.
That was Garza’s last significant action of the first half, though, as Hoiberg re-centered his squad at the ensuing media timeout and the Huskers extended their lead to 38-31. The Hawkeyes closed the first half shooting 2-19 on 3-pointers.
As Iowa continued to struggle shooting the ball in the second half, sophomore guard Cam Mack led a balanced second-half offensive effort to help Nebraska keep Iowa at a distance. Mack posted another double-double with 15 points and 10 assists, but four consecutive points to give Nebraska a 47-41 lead sparked an Iowa rally.
Wieskamp’s lone 3-pointer of the game capped a 10-3 Iowa run to give the Hawkeyes a 51-50 lead, and it appeared momentum had shifted towards the visitors—until two Husker freshmen helped flip it.
Nebraska’s three minute-earning freshmen each had very productive nights against the Hawkeyes. Freshman forward Yvan Ouedraogo held his own in the paint with five points and seven rebounds and freshman guard Charlie Easley was all over the court again, energizing PBA with his defensive effort in 16 minutes with two steals.
Freshman forward Kevin Cross had the biggest night of the bunch, and Mack threaded the needle to a cutting Cross which led to a two-handed dunk to give the Huskers a 58-53 advantage. Cross finished with 11 points to round out a solid effort from the Husker freshmen.
The Hawkeyes didn’t quit, and Wieskamp’s strong second half from inside the 3-point line helped Iowa tie the game at 59 with 5:20 remaining.
And when Nebraska needed to extend its lead late, it was junior guard Thorir Thorbjarnarson’s turn to make the big shots to boost the Huskers when they needed it the most. The Iceland native drilled back-to-back 3-pointers, the second of which was from at least four feet beyond the arc, to give Nebraska a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
A press-breaking, posterizing dunk by Burke Jr. with 1:01 to go served as the dagger for the Husker victory. Thorbjarnarson tied his career-high with 17 points and he and Burke Jr. hit some key free throws down the stretch to preserve the victory.
Iowa finished the game an abysmal 12.1% (4-33) on 3-pointers, while the Huskers kept Garza from being effective over a large stretch of time in the second half. Garza’s second-half points came sporadically as opposed to his quick 9-point stretch in the first half, and he finished with 16 points and 18 rebounds.
Garza may have won the battle with a solid individual performance, but Nebraska’s defensive rotation and limitation of him consistently getting the ball meant it won the war.
Tuesday night’s victory marked another chapter in Hoiberg’s dominance over Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery, as Hoiberg moved to 5-1 in his career against McCaffery in the two’s first meeting since they squared off yearly when Hoiberg was at Iowa State.
Tuesday night also marked the continuation of home team dominance in the Big Ten, and Nebraska’s win improved home team’s records to 23-3 in conference play. While that is a positive trend, Nebraska’s style of play travels—as made evident by Nebraska’s overtime loss in Bloomington earlier this year.
For now, Nebraska looks to improve to above .500 in conference play in its next game on Saturday, as the Huskers hit the road to face Northwestern. Tip-off is at 3:30 p.m. and the game will be on the Big Ten Network.