By Jacob Bigelow
Add Iowa to the list of satisfying wins Fred Hoiberg’s Huskers have racked up this season.
The Hawkeyes came into Pinnacle Bank Arena on Thursday averaging 83.8 points a game. They left with only 50 on the scoreboard and an ‘L’ in the scorebook.
The 50 points was a season low, as was Iowa’s field goal percentage of 26% from the field (19 for 73) and free throws made (5) and attempted (8).
“We are gonna win this game on defense and energy, and I thought we did a great job milking the clock after we got some key offensive rebounds,” Hoiberg said after the 66-50 win. “That’s a team that can go on big runs and score in bunches, so for our guys to go out there and win it on (the defensive) end is what it is about for our team right now.”
The Huskers (8-4, 1-2 Big Ten) added another satisfying victory over a neighbor after beating then No. 7 Creighton 63-53 in Omaha on Dec. 4 – another game in which the Huskers imposed their defensive will on an opponent.
But Friday was even more impressive. There was a buzz in PBA with a sold-out crowd of 14,920 into the game from the start. The game went sideways quickly for Iowa (8-5, 0-2) as the Huskers jumped to an early 9-0 run and led by double digits most of the game, including multiple instances where they were up by 20.
“They hit a couple 3s, and all of the sudden you look up and you are down 12, 13 or 15,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “At the end of the day, you have to play the game with a greater sense of urgency defensively. Especially when the ball is not dropping.”
At times, the Huskers also feasted on offense. They went on a 20-0 scoring run at one point in the first half during which Iowa missed 16 straight shots as part of a nearly nine-minute scoring drought.
Back-to-back 3s by CJ Wilcher and Sam Griesel put an exclamation point on the run, extending the lead to 29-8 and setting the tone for the rest of the game. Iowa cut the deficit to single digits on two occasions, but Nebraska answered both times and went into the locker room with a 38-26 lead after Juwan Gary banked in a 3 just before halftime.
Iowa’s gaudy scoring average was the highest in the Big Ten coming into the game. What’s more, Thursday was the first game back for leading scorer Kris Murray, who had been out with an injury since Dec. 6. He led his team with 17 points in 36 minutes, but it wasn’t nearly enough.
“He’s a great player,” Hoiberg said. “He’s a three-level player and scorer. The plan was to keep Juwan on him as much as possible. Denim (Dawson) gave a good stretch on him as well.”
After the break, Nebraska picked up where it left off, pushing the lead back to 20 early in the second half. With Blaise Keita out with an ankle injury and Derrick Walker in foul trouble early, Nebraska got good contributions from both Wilhelm Breidenbach and Oleg Kojenets in expanded roles. Wilcher also got warmed up, finishing with 13 points and draining timely 3s.
Even when the Huskers struggled offensively – Nebraska did not score for nearly seven minutes in the second half – the Hawkeyes could not get into gear. They mustered six points during NU’s cold stretch.
“The offense wasn’t real pretty in the second half,” Hoiberg said. “In the first half, I thought we had good movement, rhythm and flow. They force you to play that way with their press, got us extended a bit, couldn’t get the ball downhill, when we did get an open shot, we couldn’t knock it in.”
But NU could always depend on its defense.
“We kept defending, and that was what we talked about in the huddle,” Hoiberg said.
Nebraska outrebounded Iowa 54 to 40. That kind of effort on the boards and its defense is this team’s recipe for success – a stark contrast to previous Hoiberg teams.
“That’s just pretty much what we do,” Breidenbach said. “That’s a part of the game that is completely dependent on us. The only person that can control that is us, so it’s just a product of playing hard.”
Hoiberg could also tell from the jump his guys were locked in.
“Really proud of our guys for the effort they came out of the game with,” he said. “I thought the energy was exactly what we needed. This style of team (Iowa) gets out to fast starts, and we came out and had great energy from the opening tip. That’s what you have to do to give yourselves a chance against this team and in this league.”
Gary said Nebraska emphasized defense all week coming off the Christmas break.
“This is the start of the season, basically, so it’s what we did all week,” he said. “Practiced hard for the three days we had. Defense was a mentality we had almost all week, so we just went out there with the game plan. The defensive effort was more from the coach pushing us through every week, every day, so it just came from all that.”
McCaffrey, for one, can see the difference from previous Husker squads.
“It’s a completely different team,” he said. “These guys are playing like a team. They are playing for each other. Nobody is going for themselves. They are playing for each other. I think it’s obvious. When you see that many guys in double figures, there is no selfishness there, I see.”
All five Husker starters finished in double figures. Gary finished with 14 points to go along with nine rebounds. Griesel chipped in a double-double of 12 points and 10 rebounds and added five assists. Walker and Emmanuel Bandoumel both finished with 10 points.
Gary was blunt in describing his team and what the win meant.
“People look at us as a pushover, but it’s a whole new team, whole new leadership, and whole new group,” he said. “So we’re going to go out there and just take it game after game. Today was the first step for us. We know today was a good win, so we’re going to move on to the next.”