On a night that started off about as badly as Nebraska could have imagined, the Huskers needed someone to step up and make a difference to make sure they got a win in their season opener against South Dakota.
That someone ended up being Andre Almeida.
With a team-high 20 points on 9-of-12 shooting from the floor to go along with seven rebounds, the junior center made about as good of a debut as anyone could've expected and helped NU hold off the Coyotes 76-68 on Friday night at the Devaney Center.
"His teammates got him the ball where he needed to get the basketball and then he finished," head coach Doc Sadler said. "Andre has a chance, because he works really hard and he's going to continue to do that, to be a good player. It was a severe mismatch, and we at times took advantage of it.
"But other times we weren't patient enough to take advantage of it. To be honest with you, out of 76 points, our post people should have had 60 of them. We just weren't patient enough to do that."
Just like it did in its two exhibition games, Nebraska stumbled out of the gates and trailed for the first eight minutes of the game. With the help of eight turnovers and a dismal shooting performance to open the game, the Huskers never led by more than eight points in the first half, as they went into halftime leading just 36-31.
One of the few bright spots of the first half was Almeida, who scored 12 of his 20 points in the first half and was virtually unstoppable every time he touched the ball down low, shooting 6-of-7 from the field.
The only thing saving Nebraska from a disastrous start to the season was the fact that the Coyotes were even worse offensively, hitting just 11-of-31 shots and only 2-of-14 from 3-point range in the first half.
South Dakota ended up shooting just 38.7 percent from the field and made just seven of its 30 attempts from beyond the arc.
Another major difference for the Huskers on Friday from their two exhibition contests was their free throw shooting, as they opened the second half by making 7-of-8 from the charity stripe and bumping up their lead to 43-31.
Nebraska gradually built up a 16-point advantage on two straight put-backs by sophomore forward Christian Standhardinger with 5:38 to play, and it seemed as if the Huskers were finally in full control for the first time of the night.
Unfortunately for NU, those pesky Coyotes just wouldn't go away.
Guard Jordan Boots hit a 3-pointer with 1:28 remaining, and all of a sudden South Dakota had pulled to within 74-66. It got even more tense for the Huskers when junior guard Brandon Richardson was called for a carry on the ensuing possession, giving USD a chance to bring it to within two possessions with roughly a minute to play.
Luckily Nebraska was able to withstand the final Coyote rally and hold on for the eight-point victory.
Standhardinger and sophomore forward Brandon Ubel both added 10 points for the Huskers, while guard Charlie Westbrook led South Dakota with a game-high 24 points.
"It's always good to win," Ubel said. "That's the goal every day. It was sloppy, but it's a win. You've got to win games like that, so it's really nice to get that first win and kind of get rolling."
The Huskers return to action on Monday when it plays host to Arkansas-Pine Bluff at 7 p.m.
Around the rim
***Junior guard Toney McCray played in his first game in nearly a full calendar year on Friday after missing all but three games last season with an elbow injury and sitting out the two exhibitions this year with plantar fasciitis. McCray had seven points and seven rebounds in his return, but he also committed a team-high three turnovers.
"I don't think he played very well, but it was good to get him back out there," Sadler said. "When I say he didn't play well, Toney's got to play much better and much smarter than he played."
***Another bright spot on the night was Nebraska's free throw shooting. After struggling from the line in exhibition play, the Huskers shot 19-of-21 from the charity stripe, including senior guard Lance Jeter hitting all six of his free throw attempts.
"We've been spending a lot of time on free throws, and it's got to continue to improve," Sadler said. "I think we were 19-of-21, and I would take that every night, obviously, because that's not been something the last three years that we've done a good job with."
***Sadler said South Dakota played 40 minutes of zone defense, which was what he expected coming into the game. Despite preparing the past three days in practice, Sadler said his team didn't respond to the zone the way he had hoped.
Ubel said he wasn't all that surprised with the way NU struggled against the defense, saying the players had problems with it all during practice.
"We've been practicing against it all week, and if you probably ask Coach, we weren't doing a real good job with it in practice executing what we need to do," Ubel said. "We were really sloppy in practice. I think that kind of showed out here."
***Friday was a reunion of sorts for Almeida, as he went up against a former Brazil teammate in USD forward Ricardo Andreotti, who is also a native of Sau Paulo, Brazil.
Almeida said he didn't even realize Andreotti played at South Dakota until the team started getting in the scouting report on the Coyotes earlier in the week. The two played on the same Paulistano junior team during Almeida's final season in Brazil.
"It was kind of surprising, because I didn't know until we saw the scouting (report)," Almeida said. "I was in the locker room and I saw his face and was like, 'I know this guy.' It was good to see him."