By Jacob Bigelow
OMAHA – In an arena the program hadn’t won in since the 2004 National Invitation Tournament and in a city where it hadn’t won during the regular season since December 1995, Fred Hoiberg’s Nebraska basketball team picked up a signature victory to kick off a daunting three-game stretch.
Nebraska pulled the upset over in-state rival Creighton, the No. 7-ranked team in the country, 63-53 on Sunday afternoon at the CHI Health Center in Omaha. It was Hoiberg’s first victory over Creighton as the Husker head man and it came against what many consider the best Creighton team of them all.
The series had been dominated by Creighton in recent memory, with Nebraska’s most recent win coming in 2018. Most of the games since had been decided by the second first-half media timeout – in Creighton’s favor.
Sunday’s game was vastly different, as the Huskers, now 6-3 and on a three-game win streak, hung their hat on the defensive end, forcing 16 Bluejay turnovers leading to 10 Husker points. Those 10 points created the winning margin by the end.
The game, while not aesthetically pleasing, went exactly how Nebraska drew it up, with gritty defenders hounding Creighton shooters and players in red consistently sucking up rebounds.
Creighton coach Greg McDermott compared the Nebraska defense to what his team saw in its first game of the season against St. Thomas – a closer-then-expected win.
“We can dissect this about 100 different ways, but bottom line is Nebraska was the better team today,” he said.
Creighton struggled throughout the game to find any offensive rhythm, shooting just 30 percent from the field and 25 percent from 3-point range. When asked about his group’s defensive effort, Hoiberg said, “We could not have played much better.”
Whenever it looked like Creighton might make a run, Nebraska buckled down on defense. It led to a sellout crowd of more than 17,000 mostly in blue to begin filing out in stunned silence before the final buzzer. For a game that featured two coaches known for their pace-and-space offenses, neither team could get going from beyond the arc.
Nebraska finished with just three double-figure scorers, but that was all it needed. Its two most experienced players, Sam Griesel and Derrick Walker, both attacked the rim throughout the game.
Walker led the Huskers with 22 points and 8 rebounds. The sixth-year, 6-foot-9 senior was not afraid to attack Ryan Kalkbrenner, Creighton’s 7-foot rim-protector. Again, that was part of the NU plan.
“You look at Derrick, what he does, I think I can jump higher than him right now, but when you get him the ball in the middle of the floor and he can get into the body of the defender, …” Hoiberg said, before trailing off. “We thought Derrick could have some success with that and that’s what happened.”
Walker was complimentary of how teammates assisted his big afternoon.
“They give me the ball and they tell me to go score,” he said. “Without them I wouldn’t have the confidence I have to go score the ball. So just having trust in my teammates and having them trust me so well, it helps everyone.”
Griesel did a little bit of everything offensively for Nebraska and was key to establishing the Huskers’ rhythm offensively. He finished with a double-double of 18 points and 12 rebounds.
The grad transfer from North Dakota State who grew up in Lincoln likely knew the significance of the win more than his teammates.
“When I committed here, this is the game I wanted the most for a lot of reasons,” Griesel said. “Just thinking back to players I idolized that wore this jersey that didn’t get to win in this arena, it’s hard to put into words. I get a little emotional about it.”
Juwan Gary chipped in 12 points and had 9 boards for NU.
Francisco Farabello led Creighton with 16 points while Baylor Scheierman and Kalkbrenner had 10 apiece.
Nebraska’s three consecutive wins have come against Florida State, Boston College and now Creighton. The road gets no easier as the Huskers head to Bloomington to play No. 10 Indiana on Wednesday before returning home to host No. 5 Purdue on Saturday afternoon.