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The biggest question all week was how Nebraska would respond after its most humbling defeat of the season against in-state rival Creighton. Based off the way the Huskers played from the opening tip of Saturday's 79-67 win over Arkansas State, it's safe to say they bounced back just fine.
While NU ran into a bit of a lull in the second half that allowed the Red Wolves to cut a 28-point deficit to as low as 11, the Huskers were in control throughout and improved to 7-3 on the season and a perfect 6-0 at Pinnacle Bank Arena. It wasn't as if the performance alleviated head coach Tim Miles's concerns about his team going into Big Ten Conference play in a few weeks, but for the most part it was at least a a step back in the right direction.
"I thought we practiced really well all week," Miles said. "Our ball movement was good and I thought our practices were real sharp, and I think we came out and played that way. I think we put 50 on the board (in the first half), and just a lot of different things happened, whether it be transition, we made some 3s, the ball moved, a whole bunch of assists, and that was good. We needed that. We didn't sustain it quite the way we wanted to, obviously, but this is a young team and we were playing against a team with five seniors; a tough-minded team that wasn't going to go away. We knew that they were going to stand there eye-to-eye, toe-to-toe and say, 'Listen, we're not backing down.'"
Nebraska definitely got off to a much better start than it did a week ago, as the Huskers kicked things off with a 15-0 run to open the game with the help of three 3-pointers between senior guard Ray Gallegos (2) and sophomore forward Walter Pitchford (1). Forward Kirk Van Slyke, who scored 16 of his game-high 27 points in the first half, was able to keep Arkansas State within reach, but NU's 53.1-percent shooting from the field kept the Huskers comfortably in front for the majority of the first 20 minutes.
Another 11-2 run by Nebraska a few minutes later really broke things open, and NU led by as many as 24 points after a pair of free throws by junior forward Leslee Smith that made it 46-24 with 3:54 left in the half. The Huskers would eventually go into halftime with a 50-27 advantage, marking their second-highest point total in a half this season behind the 51 they had in the second half against UMass. It also marked the first time NU has reached 50 points in the first half since Dec. 3, 2008, against Alabama State.
"We had to get on these guys early, there's no doubt," Miles said. "We felt like we had such a good week of practice that we were going to be in good shape. So to get out to an early lead was the No. 1 thing. Just hop on them early. But you knew they were going to make a run. They're a team that as I watched on tape, it would appear they play with a team for awhile and then all of a sudden, boom, they burst out with a 12-2 run or something big would happen… So I knew they were a dangerous team the whole time to make a run like that. To me, I was never quite comfortable."
As well as Nebraska played in the first half, it once again caught itself sleepwalking a bit to start the second half. Arkansas State got off to an 8-2 run early in the half to get it to 52-35, but the Huskers would eventually pick things back up and take their biggest lead of the game on a 3-pointer by sophomore forward Shavon Shields from the corner that made it 63-35 with 14:38 to go. Nebraska would get a bit too comfortable with the 28-point advantage, though, as the Red Wolves would steadily chip away at the lead and got it down to as few as 11 points with 1:47 remaining.
"What needs to happen is we need to play a full 40 minutes," Shields said. "Our intensity went down, and we kind of lost what we were doing to get the lead. That can't happen. That's what happened."
The Huskers were able to hold off the late rally, but the second-half letdown put a bit of a damper on what began as a promising outing. When all was said and done, NU had shot just 42 percent in the second half and matched its season-high with 16 turnovers on the day. The Huskers were also hit with two technical fouls in the second half, the first on junior point guard Deverell Biggs for unsportsmanlike conduct and then a double-technical involving sophomore wing Terran Petteway in the final minutes, his second double-technical in as many games.
"I was disappointed we lost some of our poise," Miles said. "We got those two technical fouls, and you just can't lose your poise. You can't keep score - 'Well he did this to me' or 'he said that to me.' You just can't play that way. I thought we lost some intensity to with that big lead, or when they came back we started maybe second-guessing ourselves too much. You can't play like that. You can't lose intensity. You can't lose poise. Hopefully it's a young team and we learn playing a veteran team like this - two consecutive real good veteran teams: one we failed to test miserably, the next one, came out great and hung on. I thought it was a good effort, but a lot to take from it lesson-wise."
Shields led the way with a team-high 15 points, while Pitchford posted his first-career double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds. Gallegos ended with 13 points with three 3-pointers, while Petteway added 11 points. Arkansas State's Melvin Johnson, who came into the game leading the nation in 3-point shooting percentage at 64.1 percent, had 18 points and was 3-of-5 from beyond the arc.
While it certainly wasn't perfect, the Huskers got a much-needed win going into another week-long break before returning to action next Saturday at home against The Citadel at 7:30 p.m.
"You don't want to go (into next week) with this crisis of confidence - 'Oh no, what happened to our offense?'" Miles said. "It's going to be equally important the next week, and then it's on. Like I told our guys, it's on like Donkey Kong, baby. It's at Cincinnati, at Iowa, at Ohio State, Michigan at home, at Purdue. There's a billion people that are going to pick us going 0-5. I'm not joking. You can go all across the world - Europe, Asia - and you're going to be able to count to a billion and they'll look at the schedule and be like, 'The Huskers aren't winning any of those.' We've got to prove them wrong."
Around the rim
***Nebraska's 15-0 run in the opening minutes was its longest of the season, bettering the 10-point runs it put up against Florida Gulf Coast and South Carolina State.
***The paid attendance total of 15,949 marked the largest in school history, toping the 15,332 listed for the Northern Illinois game. However, the actual attendance was listed as only 11,048.
***Pitchford's 10 rebounds were a career high, eclipsing the eight rebounds he had against NIU.
***Gallegos also had a career-high four assists. His previous best assist total was three, which he set on three previous occasions.
***True freshman guard Nathan Hawkins scored his first career points as a Husker with a lay-up to put NU up 21-9 with 11:46 to go in the first half. Hawkins checked in with the first round of subs, but Miles said he was still trying to figure out where the 6-foot-5 guard would fit in the Huskers' rotation.
"We are trying to figure it out," Miles said. "Where does he fit? Can he play a one, two or three? Where does our rotation go? Where does David Rivers come into play. I think those are just the kind of things we are just trying to prove out in practice, and get this thing finalized."
***Junior forward David Rivers saw his first playing time in two games on Saturday after not seeing the floor against Miami or Creighton. Rivers had two steals, a rebound and zero points on 0-of-2 shooting in six minutes of action off the bench.