February 7, 2009

Huskers rally to pull off 58-55 upset

Nebraska head coach Doc Sadler may have tried to downplay the magnitude of Saturday's 55-52 upset of No. 16 Texas on Saturday, but he wasn't fooling anybody.

After losing four of five games only a couple of weeks ago, the Huskers have now won three straight Big 12 Conference showdowns, and the win over the Longhorns was easily the best of them all.

With 6.3 seconds left in the game, Texas's A.J. Abrams missed a contested 3-pointer and NU junior Sek Henry hauled in the rebound and was fouled and sent to the line for two shots.

Henry hit the first to put Nebraska up 58-55, but missed the second to give the Longhorns a chance to tie the game. Despite a full-court press from the Huskers, Texas was able to move the ball up court and get a more than reasonable 3-point attempt for guard Justin Mason from roughly 25 feet away.

Fortunately for the Huskers, Mason's shot fell short of the rim and the clock expired to give the Huskers their biggest win of the season.

"I think our guys, as they have every game, find a way to just overachieve and stay in there, and toughness, all the things that we talk about," Sadler said. "This time at least we had some good luck."

While it may have had some luck in the process, there's no doubt Nebraska had to work in even be in a position to win the game at the end. After trailing by seven at halftime, the Huskers fell behind by as much as 12 points early in the second half.

Like they've done plenty of times before this season, though, the Huskers were slowly able to climb back into the game. Three days after shooting a dismal 52 percent from the free throw line against Colorado, Nebraska hit 9-of-10 free throws during a 16-3 run that saw them reclaim the lead at 46-45.

The final basket during the scoring spurt came on a 3-pointer by sophomore guard Cookie Miller that just beat the shot clock buzzer and gave NU a one-point lead with 6:18 to play.

The lead then changed hands three times after Miller's 3-pointer, but redshirt Toney McCray made a clutch jumper with 1:42 remaining to put the Huskers up 53-52. On Nebraska's next trip down the court, the shot clock once again dwindled down to the final seconds, but senior guard Ade Dagunduro stepped up and drained a huge 3 at the buzzer to increase the lead to four with 50.1 second to go.

Though the Huskers had all the momentum at that point, Texas wasn't done just yet, as Abrams hit a 3-pointer with 34.4 on the clock to cut the lead to 56-55. Dagunduro was then fouled on NU's ensuing possession, but only made one of his two free throws to keep it a one-possession game at 57-55 with 30.6 to play.

With the shot clock turned off, Texas let the clock tick down to under 10 seconds before Abrams missed his 3, and Henry's free throw gave the game its final score, 58-55.

"We had some guys step up and make some shots," Sadler said. "Those two 3s at the shot clock buzzer were not actually drawn up by me. You've got to give our players credit. That's what players have to do… Bottom line is they end up having to make plays on their own if you're going to win a game like we did today."

Offense certainly came at a premium to open the game, as both teams combined for just 14 points on 5-of-23 shooting. Nebraska started off shooting 1-of-9 from the field and 0-of-2 from line. On the other end, Texas took only one shot in the first four minutes of the game to go along with five turnovers.

The scoring finally picked up midway through the first half, as Nebraska jumped out to an 18-10 lead on a 3-pointer by senior guard Paul Velander with 7:47 left in the half. The Longhorns finally got going a few minutes later, as they put together a 9-0 run to reclaim the lead at 19-18 at the 4:42 mark.

The teams traded the lead for the next two minutes before Texas pulled away with an 8-0 run to close the half with a 29-22 lead, including a buzzer-beater by center Dexter Pittman off of an inbound pass.

With the win, Nebraska improves to 15-7 overall and 4-4 in the Big 12, putting them in a tie with Kansas State for fourth in the conference standings. The Huskers will get a full week off before hitting the road to take on Missouri, who the Huskers beat at home earlier this year.

As big as the game was in terms of Nebraska's postseason aspirations, Sadler insists that it was no bigger than any other win for the Huskers. But really, he's not fooling anyone.

"It doesn't change anything," Sadler said. "We've got a tough stretch. We've got to go Missouri, and I'm not for that if they aren't the best team in this league, they're the second best team, and I believe that. It will be a difficult game for us next Saturday."

Dagunduro has breakout game

It seemed as if every time Nebraska needed someone to make a big play, Dagunduro just happened to find his way on the ball.

Along with his game-high 17 points, Dagunduro hauled in a career-high nine rebounds, including four on the offensive end to extend possessions. He dove for loose balls, played exceptional defense, and, of course, hit a crucial 3-pointer in the final minute to help the Huskers hold on for the upset.

Despite his gritty performance, Dagunduro actually found himself getting yelled at by Sadler early in the second half for not playing as aggressive as he could have.

"I was mad at him to start the second half because we ran three straight plays at him and he's got to attack them, and he didn't do that," Sadler said. "I told him in one of the timeouts, I said, 'Hey, I'm going to quit running stuff for you if you're not going to attack and be your same guy.' We've got to have that (kind of performance) out of him. I was mad at him, but he came through."

Dagunduro said Sadler's lecture helped give him a spark to step up his game in the second half, as he ended up scoring 10 of his 17 points after halftime.

"He just said I was attacking soft and I need to be more aggressive and try to draw fouls on their big man," Dagunduro said, "so I took it upon myself as a senior leader to do that."

McCray takes big step

He only finished with eight points and five rebounds, but the manner in which McCray made his plays certainly wasn't that of typical redshirt freshman. Highlighted by his jumper with 1:42 left in the game that gave Nebraska a 53-52 lead, McCray scored six of his eight points in the second half.

His second basket of the half came near the end of Nebraska's 16-3 run, as his hit a jumper that brought the Huskers to with two points with at 45-43 with 7:40 to play.

"It was fun," McCray said. "Ultimately, it was fun. Going out there and playing in front of all those people, and the crowd's getting into it and it was up and down. It was like a rollercoaster game. It was fun more than anything."

Dagunduro praised McCray's effort after the game, saying watching a redshirt freshman step up when the game was on the line helped inspire the entire team, even the seniors.

"(It was) huge, man," Dagunduro said. "He was actually getting me going, saying it's going to be all right. This rook, he was playing like a senior today, and that's what we need from guys like Toney McCray and Brandon Richardson, is big plays."

McCray said he wasn't sure what got into him on Saturday that led to his somewhat breakout performance, but said earlier in the week Sadler brought in a friend to practice who talked to McCray about the importance playing hard the entire game.

"He was talking with me about just playing from the neck up," McCray said. "Just playing hard. No matter what happens, just playing hard. He was saying how that's a skill, and regardless of any skill I have, if I just work on that skill and perfect that I'll be in a much better position."

While some might question a redshirt freshman coming off the bench and taking such big shots late in the game, McCray said he never thought twice about firing away when he saw the opportunity to make a play.

"Nah, I don't ever second-guess myself on a shot," he said. "Maybe I second-guessed when he yanked me out and sat me on the bench and then yelled at me for why it was a bad shot. Then I second-guess it. But when it's in a game, I don't really second-guess it."

The game was especially big for McCray's overall confidence, as he had gone from a starter to not playing a single minute in some games because of what Sadler described as a lack of hustle and toughness in practice.

"Anytime your minutes go down, you want to know what's going on," McCray said. "It usually goes up to just playing hard and competing in practice, so when I saw that was going on I just tried to turn it up another notch and just try to learn from it."

For McCray, a native of Texas, the day was made that much more special because it came in a win over the Longhorns, the team he grew up watching and rooting for before becoming a Husker. He said he used to play with several Longhorns in high school, including Abrams and Gary Johnson.

"I've been watching Texas all my life, and I root for them when we're not playing them, so it was good playing against guys I played with in high school," he said. "For us to go out there and win, that was big."

Sadler still unhappy with free throw shooting

Though Nebraska hit 9-of-10 free throws down the stretch to help bring them back from a 12-point deficit, Sadler said he was still displeased with the Huskers' 13-of-19 overall performance from the charity stripe.

In the final minute of the game, the Huskers missed two free throws that could've helped seal the win and instead gave Texas a chance to tie or take the lead on two separate occasions in the final seconds.

"You can't miss six free throws," Sadler said. "We shot 68 percent from the free throw line. If you would've told me that, I would've told you we probably weren't going to win the game. To beat a good team you've got to shoot over 80 percent, for us. We're playing guards, we should be over 80 percent. It's not like we're playing Shaq."

Huskers not getting cocky over winning streak

With three straight wins and an upset of the 16th-ranked team in the country under their belts, there's plenty of reason for the Huskers to feel a little over confident about themselves.

But after talking with Nebraska's players and coaches, there doesn't appear to be any cocky attitudes in its locker room.

"Our senior leaders - myself, Paul Velander and Steve Harley - know that once we let anything go to our head, it can be over for us," Dagunduro said. "That's not the character of this ball team. We're a blue-collar team. We play tough, and that's what we're going to continue to do."

With a whole week off before their next game, the Huskers will get to enjoy Saturday's win a few extra days. However, they know that they can't get complacent with their recent success, as there's still plenty of season left to go.

"We've just got to stay hungry and maintain and progress, try to build off the momentum we've got going and stay focused," Dagunduro said.

It's that focus that gives Sadler the comfort of not having to worry about his team starting to get a big head over their turnaround, even with an entire week to gloat about it.

"No fear at all with this group," Sadler said. "We ain't going to lose nothing (during the week off). They need it. They need to be away from me."

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