Huskers stunned by UC-Riverside in Hoiberg's debut
The Fred Hoiberg era at Nebraska officially tipped-off on Tuesday night, and it couldn’t have gone much worse.
After a solid start, things quickly went completely off the rails for the Huskers in a stunning 66-47 loss to UC-Riverside in their 2019-20 regular-season opener.
The Highlanders, picked seventh in the preseason Big West Conference poll, shot a blistering 11-of-24 from 3-point range to erase a nine-point first-half deficit and lead by as much as 19 before all was said and done.
The loss marked Nebraska’s first defeat in a home season opener since 1980 and snapped a streak of 29 straight home opener victories. It also ended a run of 18 consecutive wins in season openers.
The Huskers couldn’t buy a bucket most of the night, finishing 16-of-55 (29.1 percent) from the field, 6-of-26 (23.1) from 3-point range, and 9-of-19 (47.4) from the free-throw line. The 47 points also marked the lowest total ever for a Hoiberg-coached team.
“Once the ball stopped going in the hoop, the defense wasn’t as good, and I thought we pressed to try to get that momentum all back at once, and the ball movement wasn’t where it needed to be…” Hoiberg said.
“It’s a very disappointing loss, but you’ve got to find a way in this business to get over it and put it behind you and get ready for the next one.”
Nebraska got rolling early, hitting six of its first seven shots to take a 16-7 lead. But the offense would go into a shell the rest of the night.
UC-Riverside slowly chipped away and eventually took a 30-24 lead on back-to-back 3-pointers by DJ McDonald and Dragan Elkaz with 3:34 remaining.
A last-second tip-in by Elkaz put the Highlanders up 32-28 at halftime, as NU missed 18 of its final 22 shots to end the half to help UCR finish on a 20-5 run.
“We started the game out very strong,” senior guard Haanif Cheatham said. “We had the crowd hyped and were very energetic. They went on their run, and I think that caught us off-guard. Being a new team, that was a little slap in the face, and we couldn’t pick it up from there.”
Things got even worse to open the second half, as Nebraska’s offensive woes continued and Riverside knocked down three straight 3-pointers to push the deficit to 44-32 with 13:55 to play.
That margin would balloon to 59-40 after a dunk by Callum McCrae with 5:45 left, and the crowd of 15,745 that came to see Hoiberg’s debut began filing out in droves.
“The adversity hit us in a huge way tonight,” Hoiberg said. “You can talk to your guys until you’re blue in the face; it’s going to hit you every time you step on the floor. What will define you is how you handle it, and we didn’t handle it well tonight.”
Sophomore guard Cam Mack had 10 points, nine rebounds, and three assists, while senior forward Matej Kavas was the only other Husker to score in double figures with 10 points.
George Wilborn III led UC-Riverside with 13 points and 18 rebounds, as the Highlanders completely dominated the glass with a 49-29 advantage.
Nebraska will return to action on Saturday when it hosts Southern Utah for a 1 p.m. tip on BTN Plus.
“It’s just understanding that one game doesn’t define us,” Cheatham said. “Our season’s not over. We’re not going home. We’ve still got 29 more games, and we’ll be fine. We’ve just got to work hard in practice and get ready for Saturday.”
1. What happened to the offense?
The hallmark of Hoiberg’s entire coaching philosophy is essentially based on scoring a bunch of points at as fast of a pace as possible. For the first few minutes, Nebraska did just that, racing up and down the floor in transition and jumping all over UC-Riverside. As soon as those shots stopped falling, though, the Huskers looked completely lost with the basketball the rest of the night. Nebraska made 10 of its final 48 attempts from the field, and many of those were off-rhythm 3-pointers and missed tries at the rim. The 47 points were NU’s lowest output since a 60-45 loss to Maryland last season and were four fewer than Hoiberg’s worst scoring game at Iowa State (51 in a 2013 loss at Texas Tech). We knew the Huskers were going to have plenty of deficiencies on defense and rebounding, but the offense was never expected to be this big of a problem.
2. Rebounding effort was a huge disappointment
Nebraska is going to be at a disadvantage on the glass against most teams it plays this season just by the makeup of its roster and the lack of frontcourt size and depth. However, getting out-rebounded by 20 against a Big West opponent should not happen. What’s worse is that the Highlanders’ 7-foot-1 center McCallum only had six of the team’s 49 boards. It was UCR’s guards who did the majority of the damage, especially 6-3 junior George Willborn III, who hauled in a whopping 18 rebounds by himself. This wasn’t a simple case of Nebraska just being smaller than its opponent. No, this was about the Huskers not putting in enough effort. With 33 total missed 3-pointers in the game, nearly half of the missed shots were long rebounds. Willborn and UC-Riverside went and got the ball and NU didn’t. It’s one thing to let a physical Big Ten frontcourt beat you up, but it’s a totally different story when the other team just outworks you for possessions.
3. Huskers were ‘slapped in the face’ by first adversity
There was one thing that Hoiberg and his staff could not simulate in practice, the four Italy games, or the closed scrimmage at Wichita State. Until this team faced real in-game adversity, in a situation with true consequences and an arena full of fans watching, the coaches would have no idea of what type of composure and leadership their roster had. Based on the first test in that regard, how the Huskers responded on Tuesday night might be as big of a concern as anything. As soon as UC-Riverside came back with its rally to take the lead in the first half, NU just shut down emotionally. No one was talking or trying to pick up his teammates, and the body language was awful on the court and on the bench. If Nebraska thought this was adversity, just wait until they go to Georgia Tech and Creighton, or face Indiana and Purdue in early league play in December. Leadership isn’t something that can just happen, but guys need to step up and have a stronger voice when things start to go south. Cheatham could be that guy, but the Huskers need more than that after what we saw on Tuesday night.