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February 10, 2014

Huskers searching to solve first half struggles

The old adage is that it's not how you start, it's how you finish. But few would argue that Nebraska has done itself very few favors by starting out the past three games ice cold offensively.

After putting up 35 points in the first half of their 82-78 win over Minnesota - their highest first-half total so far in Big Ten Conference play - the Huskers have been downright dismal to open the following games against Indiana, Michigan and Northwestern. The worst start yet came in Saturday's win over the Wildcats, as NU managed a season-low 16 points in the first 20 minutes to lower its first-half scoring average over the past three outings to just 18.6 points on 30.6 percent shooting (23-of-75) from the field.

Granted, Nebraska still managed to come away with victories in two of those three games in spite of those brutal starts, and has now won four of its past six Big Ten contests. Head coach Tim Miles said there have been a variety of factors that have led to his team's first-half struggles, and while he obviously knows those problems need to be fixed, he's been proud of the way the Huskers have for the most part managed to adjust at halftime and bounce back in the second half.

"I think you can look at our season collectively and say there were times when we started the second half really slow earlier in the year," Miles said during Monday's weekly Big Ten coaches' teleconference. "We'd get a lead and teams would charge right back on us, and it's really symptomatic of our team being young and inexperienced, whatever that might be. We've seen some pretty good teams, too. Indiana I thought was very clever with its game plan, and that threw us off.

"Michigan, I'd prefer not to discuss, but I felt we just rushed to keep up with Michigan, which unless you're somebody like Iowa or Michigan State and some of the teams that are bonafide ranked teams this year you can do, we're just not there. And Northwestern is just really good defensively. I thought we had some open looks. I thought we made some questionable decisions, but I thought rebounded with a great second half in each of those and made some adjustments."

Poor shot selection has been as big of a culprit as anything. For whatever reason, Nebraska has struggled to get into any sort of flow offensively early in games and far too many times has settled for quick, contested 3-pointers rather than work the ball around to set up high-percentage shots. To make matters worse, NU has missed far more of those shots from beyond the arc than it's made in the first half.

In the past three games, the Huskers are just 6-of-31 (19.3 percent) from 3-point range in the first half and have taken double-digit 3-point attempts two games in a row. Not only have the high volume of perimeter shots not gone in, they've also prevented Nebraska from taking the ball to the basket and getting to the free throw line, as it's attempted a combined six first-half free throws during that stretch.

Like Miles said, though, the good news is that Nebraska has overcome the majority of those rough starts and won three of its past four games, putting itself at least in the discussion of potentially making an NCAA Tournament run in the final eight remaining regular-season games. Even after setting a new season scoring low in the first half against Northwestern, the Huskers cleared a major hurdle by picking up their first true road win in more than a full calendar year.

"I think it's about figuring out how to be successful," Miles said. "Northwestern's playing really good basketball. I don't know if that game would have been any different if we had played at Northwestern, in Lincoln or in a park in Evanston. It's just going to be a fight, a physical game… We were fortunate to come out of there with a win. We've just got to keep getting better every night, because now we have Illinois, who I thought played really well yesterday against Penn State, and they'll come in with some confidence. They feel like they broke a long string (of losses), and now they'll be looking to start a new (wining) one."

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