LINCOLN — Take your pick.
Call it the Charlie Easley game, the scrappy freshman walk-on diving on the floor for a key possession in the second half. Maybe focus on Thorir Thorbjarnarson and his 17 points and back-to-back 3-pointers that loosened the Huskers’ tie and bolstered a late lead. Maybe you’ll want Cam Mack and his 15 points, 10 assists and key layin with 100 seconds left, or Dachon Burke and his and-1 dunk that had the junior guard standing over Riley Till like a boxer in a ninth-round TKO.
Nebraska’s 76-70 win over Iowa was a choose-your-own-hero game. Any will do. All were needed.
“I just wanted to see us compete,” coach Fred Hoiberg said. “I thought everyone that played made a contribution.”
The Husker defense stifled the third-most efficient offense in the country, holding the Hawkeyes to 4 of 33 shooting from 3-point range and fewer than 75 points for the first time in a month. Nebraska double- and triple-teamed Luka Garza — who entered the game scoring 22 a game — and forced Iowa to make outside shots.
Connor McCaffery was 3 for 8, Ryan Kriener 3 for 7, Joe Toussaint 7 for 18, Bakari Evelyn 0 for 3. Even though Joe Wieskamp scored a team-high 21, he was 1 for 10 from 3-point range.
“The game plan worked perfectly,” Thorbjarnarson said.
Nebraska’s now 7-8 on the season and 2-2 in the Big Ten, tied for fifth. Iowa falls to 10-5 and 1-3 in conference play.
Nebraska — in alternate cream jerseys — looked like a different defensive team from the one that played Rutgers on Friday. The Huskers filled the lane, four of those cream jerseys with a shoe in the paint at all times while assistant Doc Sadler yelled, “Keep it tight!” in Hoiberg’s ear on the bench all game. That strategy led the Hawkeyes to take 15 3s in their first 20 shots. They made one.
“We outrebounded them, we had a great effort from Garza, but we didn’t shoot it well,” said Fran McCaffery, who is now 1-5 against Fred Hoiberg.
Two Haanif Cheatham free throws capped a 14-2 run that gave NU a 23-11 lead in the first. Iowa finally found Garza down low, the big man posting deeper and getting away with a small hook and scoring eight straight points to keep it close. He finished with 16 points and 18 rebounds.
“If Garza got the ball, he was going to score it,” Hoiberg said.
A pair of Husker 3s from Cheatham and Kevin Cross kept the lead at 38-31 heading into half.
A 3-pointer from Wieskamp gave Iowa its first lead of the game at 51-50 eight minutes into the second half.
A backdoor bullet from Mack to Thorbjarnarson put NU up 56-53 in a game that slowly collected intensity as the final buzzer crawled closer, fans screaming for over-the-back calls, coaches on both sides hovering over their coaching boxes. Easley’s diving play to scoop up a loose ball and call a timeout set the tone for the final seven minutes.
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Easley played in place of Jervay Green, who did not see the floor. Hoiberg said that was his decision. He wanted to return to the rotation NU found success with in the overtime loss to Indiana and win over Purdue, two games that Green sat out while suspended.
Wieskamp tied the game at 59 with a bucket inside. Thorbjarnarson — who played hero the last time these teams played with a game-saving block — countered with back to back 3s, the second from south Lincoln.
“Thor’s my best friend on the court,” Mack said. “Just his energy, he moves without the ball, makes me look good backdoor cutting. He’s just so positive.”
Nebraska led 65-61 at the final media timeout, then forced two straight turnovers and extended the lead to 69-62 after a Mack score.
The final stretch was a stressful, whistle-filled slog.
Cross missed the front end of a 1-and-1, and Toussaint scored to make it a five-point game.
Mack made one free throw for a six-point lead.
Toussaint scored again to cut Iowa’s deficit to four with 1:04 left.
Burke leaked out after the timeout and dunked on Till — with the foul — to make it 72-66 with one minute left.
Toussaint missed at the rim, then Garza tipped the ball to himself twice before Thorbjarnarson put on a cape again, sneaking his hand in, taking the ball and canning two free throws to seal the win, Nebraska’s first of the 2020 calendar year.
“The main thing for this team is to be consistent,” Thorbjarnarson said. “You guys have seen that when we play well, we can play with anybody.”