Huskers Continue Roll
Boy, it sure seemed fitting, what with Duby Okeke, in a black Nebraska jersey, making a highlight-reel blocked shot, and then crossing his arms, much to the delight of a loud, sellout crowd.
One problem, though.
Uh, well, this is awkward. Okeke really didn’t mean to use the “throw the bones” gesture, one the Nebraska Blackshirts display after making a spectacular defensive play on the football field.
“The fans loved it, though,” Nebraska sophomore forward Isaiah Roby told Okeke, a fifth-year senior graduate transfer.
That, they did.
The 6-foot-8, 247-pound Okeke skied to block 6-9, 243-pound Mamadou Doucoure on what appeared to be a dunk attempt. It marked Okeke’s second straight block on the Rutgers freshman, and his second of four blocks for the game.
When Okeke crossed his arms in front of a television camera, the Pinnacle Bank Arena crowd of 15,351 – the Huskers' second straight sellout – cheered its approval of the video board replay.
Turns out, Okeke was merely trying to emulate a celebratory move of one of his favorite professional players, Ben Wallace. He failed, and Okeke sheepishly admitted he really didn’t know what he had done, or what it meant.
Here’s guessing most Nebraska fans won’t care after arguably Okeke’s best performance in his only season with the Huskers.
Okeke, who hadn’t played in two of the Huskers’ last three games, made the most of his 6 minutes Saturday, contributing with two points, four rebounds and the aforementioned four blocked shots in Nebraska’s feel-good 67-55 victory over Rutgers.
Okeke said he’s maintained the correct mental approach while believing in himself, even though his minutes have been limited lately.
“You work hard all the time and stuff,” Okeke said, “but just like in life, you don’t always get what you want.”
Okeke entered with 2:21 remaining in the first half and immediately made his presence felt with two blocked shots while playing the remainder of the half.
His other four minutes came when he entered with 12:02 remaining in the game. He scored his first points since Jan. 6 at Purdue, and not only that, they came at the free-throw line, where Okeke had been just 2-of-7 on the season, with no attempts since December.
Naturally, fans cheered loudly with each swish, and they gave Okeke a loud ovation when he left the game.
“I’m really proud of Duby,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said. “It would be easy to sulk and pout, and he hasn't. He’s still talking in meetings, he’s still talking game plan, even though his reps are down.”
Roby, meanwhile, had 10 points and 11 rebounds for his first double-double since a season-opening victory over Eastern Illinois. Coming off a career-high 19 points Tuesday at Minnesota, Roby continued his momentum in the first half with a sensational, highlight-reel, tomahawk dunk in which he went airborne from the Big Ten logo just inside the free-throw line. Players below him stood with mouths wide open.
“He took his first dribble,” Miles said, “and I go, ‘Ohhh!’ ”
“We had a nice pace about us to start the game,” Miles said.
Rutgers (12-15, 2-15) didn’t wilt, though, like it has in some conference road games this season. The Scarlet Knights rallied to cut the deficit to five, 27-22, and trailed by nine at halftime.
But Nebraska (19-8, 10-4) did what good teams do when the opponent won’t initially die. It put together another run, this time a 10-0 spurt, and pushed the lead to as many as 18 points in the second half.
“Nebraska is playing good basketball,” Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said. “We needed to certainly play better than that on the road here. They’ve been great at home. Tip of the hat to Coach. He’s doing a real good job. They’ve got a lot of guys, they’ve got a lot of answers, a lot of matchup problems.”
Pikiell agreed that Nebraska has the look of an NCAA Tournament team. He pointed to a strong veteran point guard in Watson, who scored 11 points Saturday, less than two weeks after scoring a game-sealing layup with 30 seconds remaining to beat Rutgers on the road. Pikiell also likes Nebraska’s balanced scoring – the Huskers had four players in double figures Saturday, led by James Palmer Jr. with 15 points.
“I watched all their tapes coming in,” Pikiell said. “They’re on a good roll right now. They have good, veteran guys. They create matchup problems. They can go big at times, they can go small. They can do a lot of different things, and Coach is doing a really good job of coaching them up.”
Nebraska, though, knows it must keep winning to stay in good graces with the NCAA selection committee, which will point to lack of quality victories as a smear on the Huskers’ resume.
Yet Nebraska stands alone in fourth place in the 14-team Big Ten Conference, with four games remaining, including three at home. The Huskers are a win shy of 20, a mark they haven’t met since 2007-08, and not in the regular season since 1992-93.
“You look at what’s at stake, and you’ve got fourth place in the Big Ten and undefeated at home in the league and a chance to play your way into the NCAA tournament,” Miles said. “There’s a lot at stake. So, we need their focus, and I think they understand what their goals are and they want to accomplish them.”
Reach Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.