Nebraska found joy through making Iowa miserable in Thursday’s blowout win

LINCOLN — Denim Dawson wasn’t having it. It didn’t matter that it was garbage time. It didn’t matter that Nebraska led 66-47 in the final 30 seconds of the game.

When the Husker freshman saw Iowa’s Payton Sandfort breaking toward the rim in transition, Dawson pursued him, rose with his right arm extended and swatted the dunk attempt.

It was one last exclamation point on a dominant Nebraska performance. One last effort to play on a night full of them.

“That’s what he does,” teammate Wilhelm Breidenbach said. “He plays hard. He doesn’t care about the consequences. We all saw it coming.”

On Thursday night at Pinnacle Bank Arena, in front of one of the best crowds of the Fred Hoiberg era, Nebraska’s rough-and-tumble, yield-nothing-easy bunch embarrassed rival Iowa 66-50, holding the Hawks to 19 of 73 from the field.

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The Huskers played with relentless force. The Hawkeyes played like they had too many Christmas cookies.

“I thought we had sustained energy pretty much for 40 minutes,” Hoiberg said.

There are two kinds of joy in victory.

One is the satisfaction of accomplishment, the warm sense of fulfillment and validation when hard work pays off on the scoreboard. That’s the kind of joy we teach our kids.

The second kind? Making your opponent absolutely miserable. That’s what Nebraska did to Iowa.

The only regret for Husker fans who rose repeatedly in standing ovations? Iowa didn’t play well enough to inspire Fran McCaffery’s rage.

C’mon, Coach! We only see you once a year. Play the hits!

Instead, McCaffery praised the Huskers’ unselfishness afterwards, scrubbing any comparisons to Hoiberg’s previous editions.

“It’s a completely different team,” McCaffery said. “These guys are playing like a team. They’re playing for each other. Nobody’s going for themselves. I think it’s obvious.”

Iowa, which came into Lincoln with the 10th-best offensive efficiency in Division I, made 3 of its first 28 shots. It didn’t get much better from there.

After halftime, the Huskers demonstrated a level of dominance we’ve rarely seen from a Hoiberg team.

There was Emmanuel Bandoumel ducking backdoor on an out-of-bounds play for a forceful flush. And Sam Griesel driving baseline and finding Juwan Gary for an acrobatic reverse layup. And Breidenbach outhustling Iowa for an offensive rebound, which led to a Gary 3.

Then Gary burst baseline for a thunderous dunk. Then Breidenbach nailed a left-handed turnaround jump hook from 16 feet. Then CJ Wilcher found Bandoumel for a fast-break alley-oop slam. Then Bandoumel danced and dashed past Kris Murray for a reverse layup.

From the bleachers, Big Red fans delighted in every highlight, cheering for every Husker offensive board — and every Iowa air ball.

The biggest roar might have come with 4:05 left when another frenetic Husker defensive rotation ended with a collision in the lane. Officials called Breidenbach for a block instead of a charge. The crowd booed heartily.

How dare the refs not reward another effort play?

That’s the formula for this team. Swarm and rotate. Deflect passes. Force tough shots. Hope the opponent misses.

It might not work on the road. But more times than not, it’ll work in Lincoln, where this fan base has waited 3½ years for something to cheer.

“That’s what this team is built on,” Hoiberg said. “Defensive identity.”

Of course, Nebraska can still be an adventure, even in triumph.

Flimsy passes against Iowa’s press, for instance. Or premature double teams, throwing the defense into unnecessary rotation. But the chaos is sort of part of the experience. When the calling card is intense, even struggles can be forgiven.

During one second-half possession, the Huskers collected three offensive rebounds — Breidenbach, Gary, Breidenbach — each producing a louder cheer. Did they lead to a basket? No. But the crowd loved it anyway.

These Huskers won’t win any beauty contests. But they’re quickly inspiring a fan base because they play so dang hard. Their effort might not produce a postseason bid. But on many nights, especially in Lincoln, their effort will make a Big Ten opponent miserable.

Joy doesn’t come much sweeter.

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