Countless games have been won and lost at the free throw line, but in few games has that held as true as it did for Nebraska against Baylor on Wednesday night.
In a game that was within two possessions for nearly all 40 minutes, no single factor played a bigger role in the Huskers' 74-70 loss to the Bears than the glaring disparity at the free throw line. When all was said and done, Baylor had shot 31-of-44 from the charity stripe compared to NU's 16-of-19.
Nebraska (15-8 overall, 3-6 Big 12) has now lost three in a row and four of its past five games. The loss was the Huskers' 13th straight Big 12 road defeat, tying its longest streak since March 2, 2002, to Feb. 4, 2004.
"I'm very disappointed that we lost," head coach Doc Sadler said on his post-game radio show. "I mean, losing is something that we don't like, we don't want. I've just got to go back and figure out how to keep from putting people on the free throw line, because our team is playing as well as we can play.
"We're executing. You look at our field goal percentages, you look at our defensive boards, you look at our turnovers, all those things are good enough to win. We just cannot afford to put a team at the free throw line for 31 free points. We go inside an awful lot. That's one of our strengths. But for some reason we're not getting to the free throw line as much as we need to."
With several Nebraska starters playing in foul trouble the majority of the second half, the Huskers were still able to keep the Bears (16-7, 6-4) within arms reach until the final seconds of the game.
However, there was no denying that the game changed completely when junior guard Toney McCray picked up his fourth foul with 16:48 remaining. Having just scored 20 of NU's past 22 points from the end of the first half on into the start of the second, McCray was carrying the Huskers on his back and had just hit a pair of free throws to make it 43-40 game.
On Baylor's next possession, McCray was called for a reaching foul, and he was forced to the bench for the next 5:30. He would make just one more 3-pointer from that point on, finishing with a career-high 23 points on the night.
With McCray on the bench and senior point guard Lance Jeter, the team's leading scorer on the season, also playing with four fouls, the Huskers found themselves down by five with 6:30 to go after an alley-oop dunk by Baylor's Perry Jones.
Despite having four fouls, Jeter stepped up in McCray's absence and scored NU's next six points to make it a 66-63 game with 3:30 left on the clock.
The Huskers had their best chance to finally reclaim the lead two minutes later when junior guard Brandon Richardson and Jeter scored two straight baskets to make it 69-67 with 1:30 left in the game, and then McCray picked up a loose ball at half court and started a three-on-two fast break.
Unfortunately, after playing so well the first 39 minutes, McCray fumbled the ball out of bounds and gave possession back to Baylor. The Bears then increased their lead to 71-67 on a pretty up-and-under lay-up by guard LaceDarius Dunn 38.3 left in the game.
Nebraska had one last chance to keep it close, but a 3-pointer by McCray was blocked by Anthony Jones, and Dunn went down and hit two free throws to seal the win for the Bears, who have now won three straight over the Huskers since NU won its last Big 12 road game in Waco back in 2009.
"The bottom line is you can't go on the road and play any better than we played tonight against a team as good as Baylor, and then you put them at the free throw line 44 times and give them 31 free points," Sadler said. "That's what we did, and that's why we came up on the short end."
The game started out in typical Nebraska fashion, as neither team started off very well offensively. After the Huskers took the lead on a 3-pointer by senior guard Drake Beranek with 14:35 to go, Baylor started to get things going and put together an 8-2 run that put the Bears up 19-16 with 8:32 left in the half.
By hitting 12 of its first 14 free throws of the game, Baylor eventually bumped its lead up to 26-21 on two straight baskets by forward Quincy Acy, as Nebraska scored just seven points on only two field goals in nearly 12 minutes following Beranek's 3 at the 14:35 mark. By the end of the half, Baylor had shot 19-of-26 from the line compared to NU's 9-of-10.
Luckily for the Huskers, McCray was able to provide the only semblance of offense down the stretch for the Huskers. McCray, who came into the game averaging just 7.2 points per game, scored 12 of Nebraska's final 14 points of the half, including a 3-pointer with 7.0 seconds left that cut Baylor's lead to 32-30 going into halftime.
His 23 points were the most scored by a Husker this season.
Jeter finished with 13 points and six assists for the Huskers, while Beranek added 10 points off the bench. Dunn led Baylor with a game-high 24 points and Acy came up big off the bench with 15 points, seven rebounds, four steals and two blocks.
Nebraska will return to action on Saturday when it plays host to Oklahoma State at 6 p.m.
"I can't sit here and be disappointed in my team's effort of their execution," Sadler said. "They did a nice job in all the things that we wanted to get done. We kept it where we wanted, and the bottom line is it goes back to one stat, and we've got to figure it out, because obviously we're fouling too much and teams are getting too many easy baskets."
Around the rim
***As could be expected, Baylor's 44 free throw attempts were the most by Husker opponent in Sadler's five seasons at Nebraska. The Bears' 31 made free throws were the second most under Sadler, falling just one behind Kansas State's 32 last season.
***The previous season highs for free throw makes and attempts were both set in Saturday's loss to Kansas, as the Jayhawks went 23-for-33 from the line.
***McCray's previous career-high scoring effort was 18 points, which he had done twice. Coincidentally, one of those times came as a freshman at Baylor in the final regular season game of the 2008-09 season.
***Lost in the shuffle a bit due to Baylor's eye-popping free throw numbers was Nebraska shooting 82.4 percent from the line, its best percentage since hitting 90.5 percent in the season opener against South Dakota.