In maybe the most daunting challenge in Nebraska's extremely difficult start to Big Ten Conference play, the Huskers simply couldn't keep up with one of the best teams in college basketball in what ended in an 84-53 blowout loss to No. 3 Ohio State on Saturday afternoon in Columbus, Ohio.
Despite only trailing by three points late in the first half, Nebraska (8-6 overall, 0-2 Big Ten) was out-scored 51-23 in the last 22:30 of a game that was wrapped up well before the final horn sounded. Junior forward Leslee Smith had his best outing as a Husker in his first-career start with 11 points and 10 rebounds, but it wasn't nearly enough to hang with a Buckeye squad that improved to a perfect 15-0 on the season.
"I think some of that was just sheer disappointment," head coach Tim Miles said during his post-game radio show on the Husker Sports Network. "You know, just a young team disappointed in what was going on, but you can't let yourself get to that point. You have to keep competing and keep doing the things that allow you to get there… I just think the guys at the end of the day just fell into disappointment."
Strong rebounding and efficient shooting helped Nebraska give the Buckeyes all they could handle for nearly the entire first half. Nebraska shot 42.9 percent from the floor as a team and out-rebounded OSU 20-13 in the first half, but a late run in the final minute and a half by Ohio State spoiled an otherwise solid start.
Two early 3-pointers by senior guard Ray Gallegos, who didn't even attempt a shot against Iowa, helped Nebraska jump out to a 14-10 lead, but Ohio State would answer with a 9-2 run and eventually go up 27-19 with seven minutes left in the half. The Huskers didn't let the run snowball any further, though, and actually battled back to cut the deficit to 33-30 on a bucket by sophomore forward Shavon Shields with 2:28 to go.
However, the Buckeyes' vaunted defense turned up the intensity a few notches in the final minutes and overwhelmed a somewhat questionable NU lineup to close the half on a 7-0 run and go into halftime up 40-30. As well as Nebraska played overall in the first half, the 12-to-5 foul discrepancy between the Huskers and Buckeyes gave OSU 14 free throw attempts to just four for Nebraska, leading to six more points for the home team.
With Nebraska starting to get into foul trouble towards the end of the half, it turned to a lineup that had hardly been on the floor together this season, including junior David Rivers and true freshman Nathan Hawkins. Miles said NU's foul issues made him try to use his bench to get by into halftime, but the strategy obviously backfired.
"It's 1:21 (left) and it's our ball, and so you're like, 'OK, we can bide some time', and we just looked like a train wreck out there with all those young guys," Miles said. "They get three baskets on us to end the half. You don't think that's going to be possible with the ball with 1:21, but it was, unfortunately.
The momentum Ohio State picked up at the end of the first half carried right on into the second, as LaQuinton Ross hit back-to-back 3-pointers to help the Buckeyes go on a 12-0 run and push their lead up to 56-36. Nebraska was able to get it down to 14 points with a quick 8-2 run and a layup by junior point guard Deverell Biggs with 11:31 to play, but that would as close as it would get.
The Huskers missed their final 12 shots of the game from the field and didn't score a field goal in the final eight minutes, and Ohio State capped things off with one last basket with 30 seconds remaining to make the final score its biggest lead of the day at 31 points. Nebraska shot just 37.5 percent from the field to 54 percent by OSU, and was only 7-of-12 from the free throw line compared to 21-of-29 for the Buckeyes.
Sophomore guard Terran Petteway led Nebraska with 15 points, while Biggs had nine points and three rounds off the bench. Ohio State had five players score in double-figures in the win, led by 15 points off the bench by guard Amedeo Della Valle, who was 3-of-3 from beyond the arc.
Nebraska will continue its search for its first Big Ten victory when it finally returns home on Thursday night against Michigan for its first game at Pinnacle Bank Arena since Dec. 21, 2013. Tip-off is set for 8 p.m. CST and the game will be televised on Big Ten Network.
"We're going to need the crowd to pick us up," Miles said. "Hopefully the Big Ten opener is a huge event for us. We're looking forward to the game. They're a hell of a team and they just won at Minnesota… So we're going to have our hands full. Obviously they're a team that played for the national championship and were probably one official's call away from winning it."
Around the rim
***Asked what he's learned from his team after the first two conference games, Miles was brutally honest in his assessment.
"We've got recruiting work to do," he said. "Honestly. I love our guys, but we're not where we need to be. We know that. Again, we have good players, we just need to go get more of them."
***Miles also said cutting back on the fouls would be the top priority for Nebraska going forward because the team couldn't afford to have its top players on the bench or to give opponents easy points at the free throw line.
"We've got to be a team that can play defense without fouling consistently," Miles said. "I felt that really cost us tonight."
***Miles said he felt like the Huskers did a good job with their man-to-man defense, especially early on in the game. Because of foul trouble, though, Miles had to switch to more zone looks, and that was when Ohio State's offense started to get going. On the 24 Buckeye possessions NU played man in the first half, OSU scored 14 points. On the 11 possessions where the Huskers played zone, Ohio State scored 15 points.
***With two 3-pointers, Gallegos moved into ninth place on Nebraska's career 3-point chart with 182. He also made his 100th career appearance.