When asked whether Nebraska's sluggish effort in the second half against Western Illinois could be a wake-up call for the Huskers in terms of not closing out games, head coach Tim Miles said it certainly, and hopefully, could. He also said it could be a symptom of a much bugger problem.
For the first half and on into the second half of Sunday's game against South Carolina State, it looked like it might be closer to the latter. Even with the return of suspended guards Ray Gallegos and Deverell Biggs, Nebraska struggled offensive for much of the game and allowed a Bulldog squad that finished just 6-24 last season to hang around for far longer than anyone would have liked.
Finally, with the help of a 21-8 run late in the game, the Huskers went on to out-score SCSU 40-22 in the final 16 minutes and walked away with an 83-57 victory to improve to a perfect 3-0 on the season. Gallegos and Biggs both came off the bench but provided NU with a good chunk of offense, as Gallegos led the way with 18 points on six 3-pointers and Biggs followed up with 17 points in his first game as a Husker.
"First game back," Biggs said of what he told Gallegos before the game. "We've got to showcase the good talent that we have and go out and play and have fun. That's the only thing we said to each other."
Both teams were fairly sluggish to open the game, especially on the offensive end. That was until Gallegos and Biggs came off the bench for their official season debuts and provided a much-needed spark for NU on both sides of the floor.
Gallegos drained four 3-pointers and Biggs added nine points, three rebounds and two assists to help Nebraska jump out to an early lead that got as big as 30-17 with 6:41 to go in the half. But just like they did in the second half against Western Illinois, the Huskers looked to let off the gas a bit once they got out to a big lead, and it didn't take long for a pesky South Carolina State squad to chip away and climb right back into the game. In fact, the Bulldogs ended the half on an 8-3 run and cut the lead to 39-31 after a jumper by Adama Adams with just two seconds remaining.
While Gallegos and Biggs helped pick up the slack, it was a pretty rough half of offense for Nebraska as a whole. The Huskers shot just 40.6 percent (13-of-32) from the field, but were helped by the fact that SCSU was even worse at 32.1 percent (9-of-28).
"In the first half, it kind of seemed like guys were just trying to get shots for themselves," Gallegos said. "I think in the second half we all just kind of figured it out and just started clicking together and sharing the ball."
The struggles continued on into the second half, and suddenly Nebraska found itself only up five after the first two minutes. A 3 by Gallegos eventually gave the Huskers their biggest lead yet at 53-39 with 13:43 left in the game, and that eventually sparked a 21-8 run over a span of six minutes, including a 12-2 spurt, that pushed the lead to as much as 26 before all was said and done.
"We got (Gallegos) shots that I know he can make," Miles said. "Last year we had to run him off so many actions that - he's a spot-up jump shooter, and he's got good elevation on it, and I thought those were most of the shots he took today… We got him some really good looks, which is why he went 6-for-10."
From there, the Huskers held SCSU without a field goal for the final 3:40 of the game, and out-scored the Bulldogs 44-26 in the second half.
Freshman guard Tai Webster had 13 points and four rebounds while shooting 7-of-11 from the free-throw line, while junior forward Leslee Smith had his best game as a Husker so far with 12 points, seven rebounds, three steals and a block. Sophomore forward Shavon Shields added 10 points and seven rebounds, giving NU its first game with five players scoring in double digits since Dec. 20, 2011. Guard Jordan Smith led South Carolina State with 14 points.
Looking ahead at the schedule, the competition will spike significantly when Nebraska returns to action next week at the Charleston Classic in South Carolina. The Huskers open the tournament against UMass on Thursday at 11:30 a.m. CT, and the Minutemen are off to a 3-0 start with wins over Boston College and LSU. If NU wins, it will face the winner of No. 22 New Mexico or Alabama-Birmingham, which is also off to a 3-0 start this season.
"It's time for us to go get our butts kicked a little bit," Miles said. "I mean, this is going to be the three best teams we play in a long time, until we get to Creighton and Miami, which is like a week later. This next group of games is going to be really important for us and we'll see how well we fare. We'll see what we can do."
Around the rim
***Nebraska was actually out-rebounded by South Carolina State 42-36, but part of that was because Miles said he went with a smaller lineup in order to create more offense.
"We've got a lot of room to grow, especially physicality inside defensively," Miles said. "I played small because I was letting them play motion (offense) against their zone, and we did not rebound well at all."
***Sophomore forward Walter Pitchford was hit with Nebraska's first technical foul of the season after a loose ball tie up in the first half.
"There was just an exchange of words," Miles said. "I think the official thought maybe the exchange was directed toward him, and I think it was directed toward another player. Either way, just play. Don't worry about talking to our opponent or anybody else."
***Miles said he's been pleasantly surprised with the play of Smith through the first three games, but not because of his production on the court, but more because Smith has been able to stay healthy enough to log some significant minutes.
"That's what I was concerned about," Miles said of Smith's lingering knee injury. "I was never concerned about his ability… He's really quick with the ball, and he's just got to come up with the ball better. He had a nice night. I thought he impacted the game positively on both ends."
***Gallegos said one of his goals coming into the season was to put the ball on the floor and drive more than just solely relying on his jump shot. Obviously he said his 10 3-point attempts on Sunday didn't quite reflect that.