Red Reign: ‘Locked-in’ Huskers end seven-year men’s basketball drought by thumping Jays

Red Reign: ‘Locked-in’ Huskers end seven-year men’s basketball drought by thumping Jays
Glynn Watson and the rest of Nebraska's starters all scored in double digits Saturday. BRENDAN SULLIVAN/THE WORLD-HERALD

LINCOLN — Thomas Allen walked into the postgame press conference with a smirk and a green Gatorade cup.

“We need some more chairs up in here,” the sophomore said.

James Palmer walked in with a tuxedo T-shirt over his jersey and plopped down next to Allen.

“Whooo, man oh man,” Palmer said with a grin.

An official tried to put more chairs on the stage, but they wouldn’t fit. Some players had to be relegated to the hallway for interviews.

Nebraska just had too many stars for one stage Saturday against Creighton.

“Every guy was locked in and played tremendously,” coach Tim Miles said, his hair still disheveled from the postgame celebration. “Every guy made these huge plays.”

In front of a standing room only crowd out for revenge after seven years of embarrassing losses, Nebraska exorcised its Bluejay demons in a 94-75 win. The win is Miles’ first against McDermott in 15 tries.

But though Miles is the face of the program, it was his team, his entire team, who pushed Nebraska over Creighton. Palmer led the Huskers with 30 points on 9-for-12 shooting, hitting 6 of his 7 3-point shots. Allen scored a career-high 18 points. Isaiah Roby added 15, Glynn Watson 13 and Isaac Copeland 11.

Every Husker who played more than two minutes scored, the starting five each hitting double digits for the first time this season.

“Definitely before the game and all week at practice, we’ve just been locked in and focused,” Palmer said.

Nebraska used the Bluejays’ formula against them, making 14 3-pointers and shooting 53 percent from the floor. Creighton entered the game as one of the best shooting teams in the country, and was held to just 43 percent shooting. Mitch Ballock led the Jays with 23 points, making 7 3-pointers.

“We had no answer for them defensively,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “They won the 50-50 plays today. They played like a veteran team that was desperate for a win. They were really good today.”

Pinnacle Bank Arena was packed on Saturday evening, with 15,028 anxious fans awaiting their team’s response to the loss to Minnesota on Wednesday. Students stood outside in the 20-degree cold with signs mocking Creighton for being implicated in the FBI’s investigation into college basketball. Hundreds of fans stood in standing room only spots on the concourse, and before the national anthem started, a fan cut through the quiet with a stern: “Creighton sucks!”

Before the game, Nebraska assistant coach Michael Lewis told Miles he was a little worried. The guys either look nervous, or they’re laser-focused.

Then Palmer hit his first three shots, all from 3. Students threw fake $100 bills into the air in place of the usual newspaper clippings. Nebraska zoomed out to an 18-10 lead, Allen scoring 11 points in the first 12 minutes.

“We tried to take it up a notch and come out ready,” Watson said.

Creighton’s plan, McDermott said, was to pack in the lane and not allow easy buckets at the rim. Nebraska countered that by letting it fly from deep. NU made six of its first nine 3-pointers, and midway through the second half, unleashed the best run of the season. After Allen and Copeland hit back to back 3s to make it 30-14, Roby hit a fallaway jumper and Allen made a layup. Off the bench, Nana Akenten made his first shot from 3-point range, and a few plays later, he dove at the foot of a Creighton defender to snag a loose ball. That turned into a Brady Heiman layup on the other end, giving Nebraska a 20-point lead in less than 15 minutes of play.

Creighton struggled with Nebraska’s length, but found some success on the perimeter late in the first half. After three Ballock 3-pointers, the Jays went into the break down just 13, then scored on eight of their first 12 possessions of the second half.

But the Huskers scored on nine of their first 12. They wouldn’t go away.

And in contrast to the Minnesota game, when Nebraska gave up 31 points in the final eight minutes and lost, the Huskers ramped it up when Creighton made one final run near the end of the game. After a 3-pointer from Davion Mintz made it 77-67 with 6:05 left, Nebraska responded with  an 11-3 run. Miles sent in his bench players to close out the win while McDermott told every Bluejay to look around and remember this feeling.

Nebraska danced to Waka Flocka Flame’s “Grove St. Party” at midcourt after the win. Miles, overwhelmed with emotion, sat in the locker room in silence for a few moments before addressing the team.

“It is meaningful,” he said.

One-third of the way through the season, Nebraska is 8-2, with résumé-building wins over Seton Hall, Clemson and now Creighton. After seven years, Nebraska finally punched back.

“I told them at the beginning of the year that I feel like we can beat any team we play at any time, anywhere,” Miles said. “The guys have a lot of versatility and we can do a lot of things, and today was a lot of fun. It was a good Husker victory. And I am proud of our guys.”

Sluggish start too much for Bluejays to overcome against rival Huskers

As the music blared and the fans roared, Creighton’s players sat together during first-half timeouts and recited the basic elements of their game plan to one another.

They understood then what needed to happen to withstand Nebraska’s early barrage.

But once they trotted back out on the court? Once the whistle blew to restart play? Once their motivated opponent revved itself into attack mode yet again?

The messages simply did not stick. Not until it was too late.

The Jays spent the first 15 minutes of Saturday’s 94-75 defeat trying to ignite their stagnant offense while their apprehensive approach defensively did little to disrupt the surging Huskers.

They had the answers, they just couldn’t implement them. And the result was an insurmountable 21-point deficit.

“At the end of the day, we couldn’t get going,” sophomore Mitch Ballock said. “They set the tone early.”

Ballock did help lead Creighton’s eventual response — his 3-pointer with 4:45 left before halftime ended a 31-10 NU run. The Jays trailed 47-34 at the break. Their plucky and persistent persona kept them within striking distance for much of the second half.

But ultimately, the damage was already done.

Nebraska, eager to snap a seven-game losing streak to CU, never relinquished the momentum.

“You just can’t dig a hole like that in an environment like this and expect to survive,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said.

The factors that led to the lopsided first-half score were apparent on both ends of the floor.

Defensively, Creighton decided to collapse its alignment inward, plugging up driving lanes and forcing Nebraska to take jump shots. But CU hoped to at least offer some resistance on those long-range tries — or maybe erase the space aggressively enough to break the Huskers’ shooting rhythm.

It didn’t work. The Huskers made three of their first four 3-pointers. During a stretch midway through the first half, they hit three in a row from deep. The team that shot 33.5 percent from 3-point range before Saturday nailed 14 3s.

“We’ve just got to be 5 percent stronger, 5 percent higher, 5 percent faster — and we’ll be fine,” Creighton junior Martin Krampelj said. “Those shooters, we had a hand up, but it just wasn’t close enough. We were there, but just not close enough.”

The Jays’ normally potent offense wasn’t able to keep pace.

They went nearly five minutes without a field goal early during NU’s decisive run, what ultimately contributed to a 10-of-28 shooting performance in the first half.

There were eight turnovers. They had four shots blocked. Perhaps forcing the issue a little too much, they couldn’t convert their chances in transition. They seemed to have several halfcourt possessions where the ball stuck to one side of the floor.

“Our message to the guys, when you get in that situation, you don’t go faster, you go slower,” McDermott said. “You don’t throw less passes, you throw more passes. You don’t cut less, you cut more.”

They did figure it out. But Nebraska was in control by then.

Creighton-Nebraska notes: Loud Pinnacle Bank Arena crowd does not disappoint

LINCOLN — Most of Creighton’s players hadn’t experienced Pinnacle Bank Arena before, but they knew the environment would be wild Saturday.

The venue definitely met their expectations.

The young Jays’ first exposure to Nebraska’s home crowd happened to be on a day when Husker fans produced one of the best atmospheres in recent NU hoops history.

The noise reached deafening levels throughout Nebraska’s 94-75 win Saturday, even when there wasn’t anything on the court to cheer about.

“I remember one timeout, my ears starting ringing,” CU junior Davion Mintz said. “I’m trying to tell everybody to calm down but I can’t even hear myself talk. They brought a really good crowd today.”

Nebraska announced that Saturday’s crowd of 15,950 was the sixth-largest in its Pinnacle Bank Arena history and the second-biggest for a non-conference matchup.

Senior James Palmer said the fans brought their ‘A’ game.

“This might be one of the best crowds I’ve played in front of,” Palmer said. “Since I’ve been here, this has been one of the best.”

Comeback goes by the boards

Creighton’s inability to grab a defensive rebound foiled its attempts to pull within single digits and put some pressure on the Huskers after halftime.

Nebraska scored on 11 of its first 15 possessions after the break — it secured offensive rebounds on three of its six missed shots during that stretch. A putback dunk by senior Isaac Copeland extended NU’s lead to 72-56, forcing a Creighton timeout.

NU finished the game with 11 offensive rebounds and 19 second-chance points.

“We just didn’t get the defensive rebound when we needed to,” CU sophomore Mitch Ballock said.

On the year, the Bluejays have produced just a 67.7 defensive rebounding percentage. That ranks 285th nationally, according to Ken Pomeroy’s data.

CU had the 29th-best defensive rebounding percentage in the country last year at 75.4.

Allen shines against Bluejays

Nebraska sophomore Thomas Allen scored a career-high 18 points, and it’s a performance that you better get used to.

That was Palmer’s assessment, anyway.

He watched Saturday as Allen drove into the lane for his first three buckets — the last of which extended NU’s lead to 18-10. Allen hit a 3-pointer and converted another layup in transition. He led the team with 13 first-half points.

“First of all, I think the best is yet to come for Thomas,” Palmer said. “(Saturday) was just a stepping point in helping us get that win and we always preaching to him to be more aggressive.”

NU students poke fun at CU

More than an hour before Saturday ’s Nebraska-Creighton game, Husker students had filled the center-court Red Zone section. Only a few blue shirts had invaded the most-coveted real estate inside Pinnacle Bank Arena.

To the three dudes in suits at the southeast tunnel of the arena, that was a few too many.

NU students Jacob Sullivan, Cameron Collier and Sam Wiegand dressed as FBI agents. They wore sunglasses and ear pieces. Wiegand’s blond hair stuck straight out, like he’d pulled an all-nighter.

The trio of Husker fans were there to make sure Creighton fans — and specifically coach Greg McDermott — were reminded as often as possible of the Bluejays’ link to an FBI investigation into college basketball.

Creighton was implicated in a recent federal trial by the father of basketball player Brian Bowen. He testified that a basketball agent told him Creighton offered to give the Bowen family $100,000 and a job had Bowen signed with the Jays. Creighton, in a statement, said it had done its own thorough review and took the allegations “very seriously.”

Husker fans on Saturday took the opportunity to poke fun.

“We’ve got checks for $100,000 for an average basketball player,” Sullivan said. Indeed, the NU student section had a check.

Before the game, the three were trying — mostly in jest — to keep CU fans from sitting in the center-court student section.

“If you’re wearing blue, you have to sit in those stands,” Sullivan said. “If your (Husker) friends want to come with you, that’s fine, but you can’t sit over here.”

Eventually, after a minute of guff, the Creighton fan was allowed through.

“I guess he’s not going to follow protocol,” Wiegand joked.

Collier was surprised more Creighton fans didn’t try to make it in the arena.

“I think NU is a great place for opposing fans to come because we treat them so well,” Collier said.

Except today?

“Except today,” Collier said.

Scott Frost, Adrian Martinez are big hits as Huskers host football recruits at basketball game

Nebraska’s football coaches — and many of its players — made an appearance inside Pinnacle Bank Arena during the Huskers’ men’s basketball game against Creighton. Sitting in the top rows of the south part of the Husker student section, NU recruiting visitors took in the action while most of the assistant coaches sat around them

Coach Scott Frost, sitting in a suite, got a roar from the sold-out Pinnacle Bank Arena crowd when he was shown on the arena fan cam.

It’s not likely Frost took as many pictures as quarterback Adrian Martinez, who, near his seat, was consistently asked to pose for photos.

Bits and pieces

» Nebraska’s 19-point win Saturday was its largest margin of victory in this NU-CU series since a 71-52 victory in 1997.

» The six 3-pointers marked a career high for Palmer. He became the second player in as many games to make six from deep against Creighton (Gonzaga’s Zach Norvell was 6 of 17 behind the arc in a 103-92 win on Dec. 1).

» NU played Saturday’s game without freshman guard Amir Harris (strep throat). The timetable for his recovery is unclear.

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