With 4:18 left and his team trailing Minnesota 56-46, Nebraska coach Doc Sadler called a timeout and tried to inspire the Huskers to rally and shrink the Golden Gopher's expanding lead.
"The game is still going to be won at this point on," Sadler said. "We've just got to grind it on both ends."
His words fell on deaf ears. The Huskers were never able to get closer than eight points and Minnesota cruised to a 69-61 victory, dropping NU to 11-11 and just 3-8 in league play.
"I was very disappointed in our toughness to grind things out today," Sadler said. "When things get tough, that's when you really have to start grinding. But we just didn't have it in us today. For what reason, I have no idea."
Brandon Richardson offered an explanation after the game. He thought the Huskers started caring more about their egos than the scoreboard in the second half, and the series of bad shots that followed submarined any hopes of a comeback.
"I don't think we're playing as a team right now and it showed," Richardson said. "When we're together, we're a tough ball club. But when we start going our separate ways, bad things happen. Tonight was an example of it."
There didn't appear to be a whiff of selfishness in the first half. NU shot 59 percent and made four of its 10 3-pointers to take a 33-32 lead into the locker room.
But the second half couldn't have been more different.
The Huskers shot 30.8 percent after intermission, a number that was propped up by a few 3-pointers by Bo Spencer once the game's outcome had been decided. NU scored six points in the first 13 minutes of the second half, a run that included a scoreless stretch of more than seven minutes.
"I thought in the first half we made some shots that maybe gave us some false hope," Sadler said.
Sadler learned before the game that his team might have to rely on jump shots more than usual. Jorge Brian Diaz, who hasn't practiced since December because of foot problems, spent the game on the sidelines in his warm-ups, a scene Sadler said could become the norm for the remainder of the season.
"I would say that it's going to a long shot to see Brian play anymore this year," Sadler said. "His feet are just killing him. He can't play. He can't walk. They haven't gotten better. They've gotten worse."
Sadler said he initially expected to get 15 or 20 minutes out of Diaz Sunday, but decided the center wouldn't play after watching him walk around before the game. He placed calls to the trainers of the Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks, both of whom he's worked with previously, in an effort to solve Diaz's woes.
Minnesota took advantage of his absence. With no fear of a true scoring threat down low, the Gophers began switching every screen at halftime. The open looks NU got in the first half quickly vanished.
But that didn't mean the Huskers stopped shooting, and Richardson said that was the problem. The missed shots led to frustration that trickled into the Huskers' effort on the defensive end too, where Minnesota got a bevy of uncontested layups and dunks in the second half.
Sadler didn't have a magic answer postgame. He said he's not worried about losing the team, but admitted he might have to change things up soon.
"There's too much character on this team for them to quit," Sadler said. "We've got to manage it somehow. Maybe we've got to start playing some more guys. I don't know what the answer is. Obviously now we have to go back and change some things."
Around the rim
***Sunday marked the return of Chadron native Elliott Eliason. The redshirt freshman played 17 minutes, made both of his shots and scored six points. He played a key role for Minnesota's dominant bench, which outscored the Husker reserves 40-7.
"Elliot's a pretty level-headed kid," UM coach Tubby Smith said. "He's his own worst enemy because he's always kind of getting on himself when he does something wrong. He really played well today. I was happy for him. We were able to get him good quality minutes."
***Diaz's absence didn't just hurt the Huskers on the offensive end. NU defended Minnesota's post players with forwards Toney McCray and Brandon Ubel and tried Mike Fox and Christopher Niemann off the bench. Sadler failed to find a working combination and the Gophers scored 40 points in the paint.
"They're all so mismatched," Sadler said. "They're trying and they're competing, but it's not easy for them. They've got to have the toughness."
***Richardson said Diaz's presence alone is often enough to keep opposing teams from attacking the paint.
"It's tough not having Diaz out there," he said. "His length alone is something we need. At the same time, that's not an excuse."