March 7, 2009

NU ends regular season with 66-62 win over Bears

If nothing else, the Nebraska basketball team took yet another step in the right direction with Saturday's 66-62 win over Baylor.

Not only did it send the Huskers (18-11 overall) into the Big 12 Tournament riding a two-game winning streak, it also gave them an 8-8 record in the league, marking their best conference record since the 1998-99 season.

While Nebraska will have to turn right around and face the Bears again in the first round of the Big 12 Tournament on Wednesday, closing out the season on a high note was the near perfect ending to a season that saw the highest and lowest ends of the emotional spectrum.

"We've had so many close ball games, and it seems like there have been 16 close ones for the most part," head coach Doc Sadler said during his post-game radio show. "To be able to come on the road and win three road games is really a credit to our players and the kind of character they've got. It's been a great year for them, and I appreciate the effort that they gave us."

As nice of an ending to the regular season as Saturday's win was, Nebraska almost let it slip away down the stretch. Leading 48-44 with just under four minutes to play, Baylor's LaceDarius Dunn hit a 3-pointer after an NU turnover to cut the lead to one.

A little more than a minute later, Dunn scored again to cut the Huskers' lead to 50-49, but redshirt freshman Toney McCray came up with a huge play when he stole the ball and eventually ended the fast break with two-handed dunk while being fouled. He hit the ensuing free throw to put Nebraska back up by four with 1:55 to go.

But just when it looked like Nebraska was about to take control, Baylor came up with yet another huge shot, as senior Curtis Jerrells drained a 25-footer from beyond the arc to make it a one-point game again, 53-52.

The Huskers responded with another big play on their next possession when junior Ryan Anderson picked up a steal and dished it out to senior Ade Dagunduro[/db[ for another breakaway dunk to put NU back up by three with 1:03 remaining.

After Dagunduro added another two free throws to give Nebraska a 58-52 advantage, the Bears clawed back to make it a one-score game with 36.9 seconds on the clock when Jerrells hit another deep 3 to make it 60-57.

Luckily for the Huskers, four straight free throws by sophomore [db]Cookie Miller and senior Paul Velander helped seal the win and give NU its best conference record in a decade.

Speaking of clutch free throws, Nebraska shot an impressive 19-of-22 from the charity stripe, including 16-of-18 in the second half.

"We've been in that situation so many times and we haven't been able to finish the game off," Sadler said. "It was good to see Cookie step up and make four big free throws, and Ade made some free throws. The other thing I thought was that we made some good defensive plays. We got a couple of loose balls and we wee able to turn those into opportunities."

It wasn't the prettiest start for either team by any means, but all things considered, Nebraska ended the first half in fairly good shape. After the lead changed hands nine times during the course of the opening half, the Huskers made just three field goals in the final 10 minutes before halftime but still led by four after junior Sek Henry hit a 3-pointer with 1:26 to go.

Baylor's Kevin Rogers scored on the Bears' ensuing possession to cut NU's lead to 26-25, and that score would hold going into halftime. The fact that the Huskers shot just 3-of-11 from 3-point range, committed seven turnovers and didn't get a single offense rebound and still held the lead at halftime could be considered a victory in itself.

"I thought in the first half, I don't know if we was tired, I don't know what it was, but we didn't seem to have that enthusiasm and that since of urgency that we usually have," Sadler said. "But somewhere along the way n the second half they found it and we were able to get the win."

While the game was obviously a total team effort, no player was more valuable for the Huskers than McCray. After scoring in double figures just four times all season - the last time coming with his 11 points against IPFW - the redshirt freshman had the best game of his career with 18 points on 7-of-10 shooting from the field to go along with four rebounds, two steals and two blocks.

With the victory, Nebraska has now improved its Big 12 record by one game every season since Sadler took over in 2006, as the Huskers have posted six, seven and eight conference wins the past three years, respectively.

It also gives them their third league road win on the year, the most the Huskers have under Sadler.

It might not have been the most ideal ending in terms of their ultimate postseason goals, but the Huskers can at least take satisfaction in knowing that no matter what happens the rest of the way, this season was yet another step closer to getting their eventually.

"The season's over now. Now the new one starts," Sadler said. "We are in a situation where I know our guys will be excited to play, and surely it's going to help a little bit, I hope. We're going to get Baylor's best effort, and we all know how good they can be."

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