COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Nebraska had no business — not after that loss to Iowa, not with a missing starter on the road — to be in a fight with No. 9 Maryland.
Logic be darned, the Huskers had a chance to beat a top-10 team Tuesday night for the first time since No Sit Sunday. But Cam Mack’s potential game-winner was blocked with three seconds left by 6-foot-10 Jalen Smith, and the 45-point second half and 14-point comeback fell just short in a 72-70 loss.
Nebraska was in it despite 7 for 33 shooting on 3s, the third-worst on the season, and the absence of Dachon Burke, who stayed home with the flu.
“If we shot the ball the way we normally do, I think we find a way to win that game,” NU coach Fred Hoiberg said on the radio after the loss. “But we competed all the way.”
Haanif Cheatham was a game-time decision, played through a calf injury and scored a team-high 20 points, including two and-ones late as NU clawed back in. Thorir Thorbjarnarson scored 15 with three 3-pointers. Matej Kavas added 11 off the bench. Cam Mack scored just four points and was 1 for 10 from the floor, but he ignited the Husker comeback with eight assists.
Smith finished with 16 points and 13 rebounds. Eric Ayala hit four 3-pointers and had 16 points.
Nebraska was dreadful in the first half, making 9 of 33 shots and clanking 17 misses from behind the arc. Maryland got to the line 18 times in the first 20 minutes, made 14 and led by 13.
But a 12-2 Husker run midway through the second half changed the game from blowout to thriller. Kavas and Cheatham hit 3-pointers, and Thorbjarnarson and Jervay Green found the lane in transition, which cut the deficit to 56-54 and forced a Mark Turgeon timeout.
“I was really proud of how they went out and stayed together,” Hoiberg said. “There was a lot of positivity and talking in the locker room at halftime. And then we went out and played maybe as good of a half as we have all season.”
Maryland responded with an 8-0 run on two Ayala 3-pointers, but NU whittled that back down to a four-point game with two minutes left.
Kevin Cross, who made his first start, hit his first 3-pointer of the night to make it 71-67 with 37 seconds left. Freshman Akol Arop then forced a backcourt turnover. Cheatham scooped up the loose ball, drew a foul and went to the line. He knocked in one for a one-score game.
Mack made two free throws after Turgeon chose to foul while ahead by three. Then Anthony Cowan missed the front end of another one-and-one, putting the ball in Mack’s hands with 12 seconds left. He raced the length of the floor, wiggled in the lane and tried to wrap his shot through the Maryland trees, but Smith rotated from help side and swatted the ball away just enough for the Terps to recover the rebound and secure the win.
“I thought Cam made a phenomenal, explosive move, but unfortunately Smith made a heck of a play on it,” Hoiberg said.
The loss was Nebraska’s ninth straight, but for the third time this season, a small, young Husker team took a Big Ten contender to the brink. First Indiana, then Rutgers, now Maryland.
And for a team looking for any silver lining, that 72-70 final glistens.
“I told the guys how proud I am of them,” Hoiberg said. “We’ve had some stretches where we’re playing really well, and it’s certainly something to build on, and hopefully we can get over the hump on one of these and get on a little run.”