En route to a 75-65 win over Queens on Tuesday, the Huskers started far better than they did against Kansas State over the weekend.
It took a few possessions, but Nebraska struck first — off a 3-pointer from sophomore guard CJ Wilcher — and opened the game with 11 unanswered points as Queens missed its first eight shots.
The Huskers controlled the first half, and that proved enough, with their foe unable to claw back into the game entirely. That’s no small feat considering Queens is a plucky opponent, one kenpom.com smartly only gave the Huskers a 10-point edge against.
The Royals, a recent Division II powerhouse stationed out of North Carolina, have made a smooth assimilation to their first year in Division I. They entered the game with a 9-2 record and ranked 4th among teams in the ASUN, a solid mid-major league, per kenpom.com.
But Nebraska showed its size and skill advantage over Queens, providing a response to the Royals’ mini-runs and their full-court press. The success and early start may have been a response to the Huskers’ poor start in Kansas City and the respect they had for Queens in what head coach Fred Hoiberg dubbed a potential trap game.
“You see this all the time, I think a couple high-majors lost games today,” Hoiberg said postgame. “And it just couldn’t happen. We had to get a win.”
Nebraska saw a firsthand example as Drake upset previously-undefeated No. 15 Mississippi State at Pinnacle Bank Arena just hours earlier as part of the Battle in the Vault event in which Queens played the Huskers.
The biggest differentiator in Tuesday night’s game was the teams’ shotmaking. Despite similar 3-point clips, the Huskers managed to outshoot their opponents by nearly 20% (52.5% to 33.8%). At halftime, Nebraska was shooting over 30% better than the Royals. Queens struggled as a high-volume 3-point shooting team that didn’t knock down many of its attempts (7-of-29).
There were few decisive runs or plays in the game as Nebraska built and maintained its mostly-comfortable lead. The most critical point came early on when Queens, trailing 13-3, made 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions to trim their deficit to four. Nebraska responded with an 11-0 stretch, featuring buckets by four different players, to go up 24-9.
The Huskers stretched their lead to 43-26 by halftime.
Queens started the second half on a 6-1 run to cut the deficit to 12 points. Nebraska responded with a quasi-hook shot from junior guard Sam Griesel, who led the team with 16 points, and a fadeaway jumper from senior guard Emmanuel Bandoumel.
“Coming out of the gate in the second half we were the opposite of that (how they started the first half),” Griesel said postgame. “Would’ve liked to play a little better in the second half. But ultimately, winning in college basketball is tough, and we’ll take the win going into Christmas break.”
The visitors brought the Husker lead as low as nine points, with a 10-2 run midway through the second half as more of their shots began to fall. But Nebraska upheld its strong shooting clip, which remained in the high-50s for much of the game.
Both teams struggled in the final minutes, as Nebraska missed its last six shots and the Royals made just one of their final seven. Hoiberg quipped that Nebraska lost the turnover battle (13-10), against a team that struggles to limit or create turnovers. Nebraska was also outrebounded on the offensive end (11-5), partially by virtue of the Royals missing more shots but also because they’re elite at generating second looks, ranking 17th in offensive rebounding percentage per kenpom.com.
Nebraska continued its balanced scoring ways with five players averaging between nine and 11 points per game and one averaging 14. Five finished in double figures against Queens. In addition to Griesel, senior forward Derrick Walker posted 13 points, six rebounds and a team-high six assists, sophomore guard Keisei Tominaga had 15 points off the bench, junior forward Juwan Gary contributed 11 points and seven boards and Bandoumel chipped in 10 points and a team-leading eight rebounds.
“That ideally is what needs to happen with our group, and I thought we played unselfishly for the most part,” Hoiberg said.
After Tuesday’s win in their final non-conference game, the Huskers improve to 7-6 overall and 7-4 against non-Big Ten foes.
“We knew that we just needed to get this before break, especially heading into conference play,” Walker said postgame “I commend my guys for coming out and just focusing on us and our principles and getting the job done.”
The game ended a three-game losing streak and will send the Huskers into a weeklong break before diving fully into Big Ten play against Iowa on Dec. 29.