It didn’t start as the prettiest debut by any stretch, but Nebraska did what it was supposed to do and pulled away for a lopsided 97-58 exhibition win over Peru State on Wednesday night.
Alonzo Verge Jr. came off the bench and filled the stat sheet with 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting, eight assists, four rebounds, and three steals in 21 minutes of work.
Derrick Walker helped NU overcome a sluggish start by scoring all 12 of his points in the first half, while Keon Edwards added 12 points on 3-of-3 shooting from behind the arc off the bench.
The NAIA Bobcats didn’t go down quietly, though, as they trailed just 39-31 at halftime were within 12 points with 12:32 still to play. Peru State hit 12 of its first 23 3-pointers, led by a team-high 17 points from Jibril Harris, who was 5-for-5 from downtown.
Nebraska led by at least 10 for the majority of the second half and eventually pulled away with a 19-3 run over the final 5:41 to break the game open for good.
1. Verge is a game-changer
Though he was unexpectedly absent from the starting lineup after being projected as Nebraska’s top point guard most of the offseason, it didn’t take Verge long at all to make his mark.
The first substitution off the bench at the 16:19 mark in the first half, the senior graduate transfer from Arizona State immediately dished out three straight assists to Walker to give the Huskers some needed life on offense.
He ended up with seven assists and three steals in 13 minutes in the first half and then scored 14 of his game-high 20 points in 15 second-half minutes.
In the win, Nebraska ended up with a 25-to-9 assist-to-turnover ratio, and Verge’s 8-to-2 was a big reason.
Head coach Fred Hoiberg said he held Verge out of the starting lineup per a coach’s decision but hinted that he expected Verge to be with the top group in Sunday’s charity exhibition vs. Colorado.
“When he went in there, the game completely changed with our pace,” Hoiberg said. “I thought he made simple plays. I think he got Derrick on (three) consecutive layups and got Keon an open three. He’s just got great command, and he’s got a great presence out there.”
2. Rebounding, perimeter defense need a lot of work
Hoiberg had mentioned several times that rebounding and defense were two of his biggest concerns going into the start of the season, and Wednesday night showed why.
Against a Peru State team that didn’t have a player listed taller than 6-foot-8, the Huskers only held a 33-32 total rebounding advantage and were beaten 12-4 on the offensive glass.
The Bobcats converted those 12 offensive boards into a 14-4 edge in second-chance points.
It wasn’t as if NU wasn’t devoting enough manpower to the defensive boards, either. There were times when Nebraska had all five players in the paint to rebound, and PSC still ended up with the ball after a miss.
What made the poor rebounding effort even worse was that the Huskers paired it with slow defensive rotations on the perimeter that led to countless wide-open 3-point looks.
Peru State made 12 threes on the night, and many of those were uncontested shots with no defender within 10 feet of the shooter.
Hoiberg was understandably frustrated with his team’s effort in those areas, but he said a game like this would be a great learning opportunity to study and improve upon. However, a top-35 Colorado team will be in town next, and a repeat performance could make for a very long night.
“That’s going to be my big theme all year long, is physicality,” Hoiberg said. “As the length and athleticism continue to go up, starting on Sunday, we’re going have to grow in that area if we’re going to have a great season.”
3. The rotation got some clarity
One of the most challenging jobs Hoiberg felt he had this offseason was trying to narrow down his rotation. All 14 scholarship players saw the floor against Peru State, but there was a pretty clear distinction between the front and back ends of the bench.
The Huskers played nine guys in the first half: starters Trey McGowens, Bryce McGowens, C.J. Wilcher, Lat Mayen, and Walker; and then Verge, Keisei Tominaga, Wilhelm Breidenbach, and Edwards off the bench.
It wasn’t until the 8:50 mark in the second half, when NU already had the game well in hand, that the next new player checked into the game in Kobe Webster. Eduardo Andre was right after him 20 seconds later, and then Trevor Lakes followed at the 7:57 mark.
Quaran McPherson was next at 5:58, and the Oleg Kojenets rounded out the scholarship rotation at 3:28.
It would seem that at least the top-nine were pretty clear cut, but Hoiberg made sure to point out that the group that finished the final nine minutes were “phenomenal” in their opportunities.
Webster played seven minutes and had two points on 1-of-4 shooting, but Andre put his stamp on the night with 10 points (4-for-4 FGs) and six rebounds in just over eight minutes of work. Lakes made both of his 3-pointers to finish with six points in eight minutes.
How that rotation looks on Sunday against Colorado will be much more telling, but at least we got a glimpse of where things stand at the moment in NU’s lineup pecking order.
“We had conversations with everybody on our roster going into this game just about roles and how important it is to accept it,” Hoiberg said. “Those guys are going to play a big role on our team; there’s no doubt about it. What exactly that is right now, I still don’t know.
“We’ve got 12 days to figure it out before we open up our season. The biggest thing I always appreciated as a player was honesty and transparency from my coach. Always be ready when your name is called, because it’s going to be. This thing is a marathon. It isn’t a sprint.”
While Nebraska was far from perfect in several areas, it was excellent in one of the most critical factors for this season’s success.
With 25 assists on 36 made baskets and only nine turnovers, the Huskers’ ball movement and decision-making were exactly what Hoiberg had hoped in Wednesday night’s unofficial debut.
Verge’s eight dimes were the highlight, but nine other players recorded at least one assist in the win. Trey McGowens finished with five assists and only attempted one shot on the night, and that didn’t come until 9:06 left in the second half.
Even NU’s bigs got in the action, as Walker and Breidenbach both had three dimes.
“From an offensive standpoint, I thought we played very unselfishly,” Hoiberg said. “That’s a great sign for us and for our team. If we can duplicate that and do it all year, then we’re definitely going to have a chance.”