With just over eight minutes left in the half and Nebraska already in an enormous hole against in-state rival Creighton on Sunday, head coach Tim Miles looked down his bench hoping to find some sort of spark for his struggling team. That's when Miles decided to finally pull the trigger on true freshman guard Nathan Hawkins.
After overcoming seemingly one setback after another during his first few months as a Husker, Hawkins made his long-awaited collegiate debut against the Bluejays. He failed to score on 0-of-2 shooting, hauled in two rebounds with an assist and two fouls in 11 minutes of action, but just being on the court with his team for the first time made it a game Hawkins would never forget.
His final stat line was nothing to write home about, but Hawkins' confidence and aggressiveness from the first possession he played showed he was ready to compete at the college level. In fact, the first time he touched the ball, the 6-foot-5, 198-pound native of Dallas, Texas, drove the ball right at the Creighton defense and drew a foul. He missed both his free-throw attempts, but his recognition that the Husker had to start attacking the Bluejays with the ball was still an encouraging sign.
"Sitting on the end of the bench and watching the whole time, you see what we needed to do," Hawkins said. "We were taking way too many outside shots, so I knew that once I got in, just attack the lane. They were playing extremely soft, and their bigs were guarding guys on our team that can slash, so just take them to the hole, try to get fouled and get us out of the mentality of shooting jump shots and just try to spark an attack mentality. Once I got (the ball), I just attacked."
That aggressiveness certainly impressed Miles, who said Hawkins' long frame and athleticism make him a nice addition to the Huskers' backcourt, especially on the defensive end when they turn to a zone scheme.
"Nate's a big guard," Miles said. "He's a knows-how-to-play guy. At that point, Ray (Gallegos) wasn't having much impact on the game. They were denying him, and it just seemed like every time we tried to run something for them they got it bottled up. So I thought, 'Let's put someone they've never heard of in.' I think Nate's a smart player. He's got a lot to learn and a lot to know, but he's going to grow and develop into a pretty good player. I just wanted to get him in the game."
From the moment Hawkins verbally committed to Nebraska during his official visit back in August of 2012, his goal was to play immediately as a true freshman. Unfortunately a series of injuries going back to his senior year at Rowlett (Texas) High School delayed his debut much longer than he originally had planned. Hawkins suffered a Lisfranc injury in his left foot during his senior season, the second injury to the foot after having a stress fracture a few years earlier when he was in middle school.
He was able to get his foot fully recovered by the time he arrived in Lincoln this past summer, but then re-aggravated the Lisfranc injury and missed a week of team workouts. Shortly after NU's practices kicked off back in September, Hawkins missed another week of practice after taking an inadvertent elbow to the head from Terran Petteway in practice and suffering a concussion.
As if all that weren't enough, in the week before the Huskers' exhibition opener against Nebraska-Kearney, Hawkins then suffered a bone contusion in his same left foot to the bone right behind the one he injured back in high school. That forced him to miss the UNK game and Nebraska's first eight regular-season games. Hawkins did suit up for the Northern Illinois and Miami games, but still wasn't ready to see the court because of all the practice time he had missed.
Finally, after more than a month of waiting, Hawkins got to play his first minutes as a Husker at Creighton. Despite the hostile environment and the less-than-ideal circumstances he faced in his debut, Hawkins said his first college game wasn't nearly as daunting as he might have expected.
"It was a lot easier than practice, I can tell you that," Hawkins said. "Teams scout you, but they don't know us like we do, so it's a lot different in a game than it is in practice. So being at practice and going against us every day makes games feel really easy. I mean, it was a hostile environment out there, but I feel like I wasn't nervous. I was just ready to go out there and try my hardest.
"Injuries have been a tough thing. Taking me out of the lineup, not letting get out there and play right away like I had planned to. But it teaches you patience, and it gives you a chance to learn more of the mental parts of the game, so once you get in you feel more comfortable. Sure, I would have rather played up to the Creighton game, but it wasn't the worst thing having to sit out."
As much as Hawkins may have gained mentally from having an extra month of practice before playing his first game, he said redshirting this season was never an option in his mind.
"Coming in, I thought I was going to play," Hawkins said. "I didn't know how much or in what role, but when we had our individual meetings, Coach said I was going to play. He gave me a list of things to do and said 'you'll get minutes if you do this.' So I was going to do those things, and then the injury came and I sat to sit out a couple games. After one of our practices we sat down there and Coach said, 'So when are you going to be back?' And I said I'd probably just miss a couple more games. Then he asked if I wanted to redshirt, and I was like, 'I don't want to.' And he was like, 'Good, because I don't want you to. I still see you playing.'
"It's tough to be hurt. Mentally you're like, it's always me, this is unfair. But then when he told me he didn't want me to redshirt, all that went away quick. I was just ready to get back out there and wait for my time, because I knew I'd have my time."