LINCOLN — Well before two second-half alley-oop dunks brought a full Pinnacle Bank Arena crowd to its feet, the smallest player on Nebraska's basketball team generated a strong roar from Husker fans.
Benny Parker might have only caused a held ball early in NU's 76-57 rout of Purdue. But he entered that scrum with the one Boilermaker – center A.J. Hammons – who could burn Nebraska the most. Hammons scored 18 points in Purdue's 70-64 over the Huskers in early January, and his post presence that day freed up several more open Purdue jumpers.
When Parker sloughed off his offensive assignment to tie up Hammons on Sunday, Nebraska began its afternoon of frustrating the7-foot sophomore.
“That was a message sent (by Parker),” coach Tim Miles said. “'We're here, we're going to be in here all day, I'm-five-foot-whatever-we-lied-on-the-game-program and I'm going to be here.' From the get go, that was a real good message that 'this is going to be hard on you.'”
Hammons promptly left the game for a breather. He would spend as much time on the bench — 20 minutes — as he played in the game. Though Hammons impacted Nebraska's offense with four blocks, his own offense was a non-factor.
From the start of the game until the 11:23 mark of the second half — when Husker forward David Rivers stripped Hammons, triggering a fast break and three-point play for Terran Petteway — Hammons touched the ball on 16 Purdue possessions. The Boilermakers scored just 11 points on those possessions. Hammons scored six of those points on 2-of-7 shooting and two free throws. He had three turnovers, including a charge against Husker forward Leslee Smith.
Miles deployed posts Walter Pitchford and Smith to stay behind Hammons, nudging him out of the lane. When Hammons caught the ball at or near the block – usually on the left – another Husker defender would collapse for a double-team. It's a common adjustment for a defense to make, but it was especially effective against Hammons, who was slow to pass out of the jam. Parker caused the held ball. Rivers got the steal. Shavon Shields, Ray Gallegos and Tai Webster helped on various possessions, too.
In an interview outside the locker room, Smith rattled off the game plan. Purdue, Smith said, wants to run three-fourths of its plays through Hammons, whether he was the final scoring option or not. So denying Hammons the ball — or making immediate trouble for him — was the goal.
“Dig in on his dribbles,” Smith said. “Nothing easy. No angles. Keep everything in front of us. Coach says post defense is everybody working together. It's not just the big man. So we double-teamed. We had to get him out of rhythm. He's the heart of their team. If we got him out of the game, we'd have a real good run.”
Said Petteway: “We tried to make him make decisions out of the double. As you could see, he turned it over a little bit and kind of got out of his game. That was key for us.”
Later on Twitter, ESPN analyst Dan Dakich called Nebraska's double-team plan on Hammons “genius.”
Nebraska's sagging, pack-the-paint defense wasn't going to change unless Purdue shot the Huskers out of it. The Boilermakers made just 18.8 percent (3 of 16) of their 3-point shots. Headlong drives into the lane helped Purdue get to the line 29 times, but Nebraska also created turnovers – and scored 19 points off them – in part because so many Boilermakers were jammed inside the key trying to bull through a wall they couldn't shoot over.
The result: Hammons left the game at the 6:22 mark, not to return, and not because of foul trouble. He had only three. It's that Nebraska led by 23.
“We did the best job on him that we've done on anyone all year,” Smith said.
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Video: Highlights from Nebraska-Purdue