This time, fans in attendance at Pinnacle Bank Arena weren’t going to get comfortable.
They had every reason not to be. After all, the Nebraska men’s basketball team has made a habit of letting winnable game after winnable game slip ever-so painfully through its fingers in the 2021-22 season.
Remember Western Illinois? How about North Carolina State, Ohio State, Rutgers or Michigan? Those losses rear their ugly head every time the Huskers’ abysmal 6-17 record, entering Wednesday night’s game against Minnesota, was analyzed.
This time, as Nebraska raced out to an early lead against the Golden Gophers and took an 11-point advantage into the locker room, the best approach was a cautious one. Even as Nebraska built a lead as great as 20 points, that uneasy feeling — the feeling that everything the Huskers built could just collapse on itself in an instant — persisted.
Nebraska had to check, then double-check and triple-check to make sure its demons were finally swept under the rug. As the final seconds ticked away, a near-euphoric release of relief swept through those on hand.
Finally, after 345 days of starvation, Nebraska is on the board in Big Ten play.
Here’s four takeaways from the Huskers’ official exorcism, a 78-65 win over Minnesota for Nebraska’s first conference win since March 1 of 2021:
It all came together
It’s fitting that Nebraska’s best victory of the season came with its most complete effort.
Nebraska men’s basketball head coach Fred Hoiberg noted postgame that everyone that touched the court in a Husker uniform made an impact against the Golden Gophers. All nine Huskers that saw action against Minnesota scored, but there’s a bit more to it than that. The Huskers won on the backs of a balanced effort on both ends of the floor.
It started from the opening tipoff. On Minnesota’s first offensive possession, senior guard Alonzo Verge Jr. forced a Minnesota turnover and quickly finished via a fastbreak layup. Junior forward Lat Mayen secured a turnover on the Golden Gophers’ next offensive possession, then kick-started a fastbreak that culminated with a breathtaking alley-oop hammer finished by freshman guard Bryce McGowens.
Including the alley-oop assist, which came courtesy of junior guard Trey McGowens, four Huskers played a crucial hand in Nebraska’s first two buckets of the contest. That theme only continued from there.
The Huskers forced a staggering 18 Minnesota turnovers — the Golden Gophers entered Wednesday night’s game ranking No. 6 nationally in turnover percentage according to kenpom.com — and seven different Huskers had a steal by night’s end. Nebraska had 25 points off turnovers and 21 points in transition, too.
And while Verge ultimately ran away with a game-high 22 points, the Huskers put Minnesota away as a collective. Sometimes it was a 3-pointer from freshman guard CJ Wilcher that quelled a Golden Gopher scoring burst, other times it was an acrobatic finish at the rim from Bryce McGowens or a bruising finish inside from junior forward Derrick Walker.
Walker and Verge helped re-extend Nebraska’s advantage when the Golden Gophers cut the Husker lead to 40-32 early in the second half, which sparked a 12-0 run to give the Huskers a 20-point lead with 11:43 remaining. From there, the Golden Gophers didn’t have a shot.
A moment of appreciation for the Husker backcourt
It might get lost in translation when all is said and done in Nebraska’s season, but Verge and Bryce McGowens’ ability to make the spectacular look routine should not go unnoticed.
Both were nothing short of brilliant in guiding Nebraska to its much-needed victory, with a bevy of highlight plays to boot. Bryce McGowens’ first alley-oop dunk, an insane feat of athleticism and finesse in its own right, was followed up mere minutes later by another alley-oop connection between the McGowens brothers.
Then, in the second half, Bryce McGowens blew by his defender and was on a collision course with the basket before he was toppled by Golden Gopher 6-foot-9, 240-pound senior forward Eric Curry. Through contact, he tossed up a circus floater that found nylon to give the Huskers a 62-45 lead with seven minutes remaining. He hit a 3-pointer to ice his 16-point effort minutes later.
Verge, meanwhile, delivered a virtuoso performance complete with jaw-dropping assists and electric moves on the dribble. He fired a no-look, over-the-head pass to Walker to give Nebraska a 52-32 lead, and it was far from his most impressive moment of the contest.
To begin the 12-0 scoring run that essentially sealed Nebraska’s victory, Verge caught Minnesota’s defense napping on an inbound play, tossed it off Curry’s back and finished at the rim with ease. After a quick Golden Gopher miss, Verge then connected on a transition 3-pointer to complete his mini scoring burst as Pinnacle Bank Arena roared.
He wasn’t done there, though. With Nebraska up 70-54 with four minutes remaining and the result all-but sealed, Verge completely broke his defender and stepped back for a Dirk Nowitzki-esque one-legged fadeaway. It was the icing on the cake of one of his best performances as a Husker.
With Verge a senior and Bryce McGowens trending towards a first-round pick in the 2022 NBA Draft, opportunities are fleeting to truly appreciate the elite talent the Huskers possess in their backcourt. Both are special players, and performances like Wednesday make it all the more apparent.
Briefly on Battle
Minnesota sophomore forward Jamison Battle, in his role as a Nebraska opponent, had one of the more unique scoring performances all season.
Battle, a George Washington transfer, entered Wednesday’s contest as the Golden Gophers’ leading scorer with 16.9 points per game. But, thanks to a concerted defensive effort in the first half, Battle was held scoreless.
Then, he erupted.
Battled proved his propensity as a microwave scorer, heating up nearly instantly after canning a corner 3-pointer early in the second half. He hit difficult shot after difficult shot, ultimately to the tune of 21 second-half points on 7-of-10 shooting. Minnesota had 21 points as a team at halftime.
It didn’t ultimately matter much, but Battle did give Nebraska a scare after cutting Nebraska’s lead to 38-31 after five minutes in the second half. His reliable shot-making abilities proved difficult for Nebraska to slow down on a consistent basis, but Mayen and Trey McGowens did enough defensively for his impact to be minimized.
What can a win do?
After an 87-63 loss to Northwestern last Saturday that Hoiberg referred to as “embarrassing” on multiple occasions following Wednesday’s win, Nebraska badly needed a positive bounce-back effort to go its way.
The Golden Gophers, too, are a relatively sound squad despite its poor Big Ten record. Before Wednesday’s loss, all of Minnesota’s losses have come to squads ranked in the Top 30 of the NCAA’s NET rankings. Head coach Ben Johnson’s squad boasts wins over Mississippi State, Michigan and Rutgers, with the former two coming on the road.
The win, of course, was extremely crucial to the team but also to Hoiberg, who spent large portions of his weekly radio defending his employment. One Big Ten win doesn’t solve all the world’s issues, but it certainly helps alleviate some outside noise.
Hoiberg certainly felt the effects of some weight being lifted off his shoulders.
“When you have lost all 12 league games, it’s important to keep that mentality and try your best not to listen to the noise,” Hoiberg said postgame. “Not that it’s not warranted, but you have to do your best to stay focused on the task at hand. To get a win for our fans that have continued to come out and show the support is important. It’s emotional.”
Better yet, Nebraska has opportunities to build from Wednesday’s win. The Huskers still face Maryland, Penn State and Northwestern, three teams rated 60th or worse nationally according to kenpom.com, plus a home date with Iowa.
If Nebraska is to match or better past Hoiberg-coached seasons, it cannot afford for Wednesday’s game to be a one-off. There’s opportunity remaining for Hoiberg’s team, and it would do well to take advantage.