It has been anything but pretty, but Nebraska put the finishing touches on a four-game winning streak to close out its non-conference schedule with a 72-69 victory over Central Michigan on Tuesday night.
While the Huskers had to fight until the very last second to hold onto the win, they still managed to head into their first run through the Big Ten Conference sitting at 8-3 on the season and riding some much needed momentum.
Senior point guard Bo Spencer had 15 points and nine assists and senior guard Brandon Richardson also added 15 points to lead NU, as four different Huskers scored in double figures.
As a team, Nebraska shot an even 50 percent from field, while Central Michigan was its own worst enemy at the free throw line at a dismal 33.3 percent, including going just 1-of-9 in the second half.
"I think the question was asked what I wanted out of tonight, and (I said) a win, and I didn't care how we got it," head coach Doc Sadler said. "I thought at times we played about as well as we could play. We executed well offensively. Even when we weren't making shots, we were getting good shots… Overall guys, I was happy to get a win tonight."
Nebraska once again got off to a slow start, as Central Michigan jumped out to a 6-0 lead right out of the gates. This time, though, it didn't take long for the Huskers to finally get things going offensively, as they quickly took the lead at 12-11 on a 3-pointer by senior guard Caleb Walker with 14:26 left in the half.
The lead would change hands three more times before Nebraska took control for the final minutes of the half. While Central Michigan failed to score a point for nearly seven minutes, the Huskers put together an 11-0 run capped off by a basket by Richardson with 1:56 to go.
The Chippewas cut the lead to five with 25 seconds left in the half, but senior guard Toney McCray nailed a 3-pointer from the corner as the buzzer sounded to send NU into halftime with a 34-26 advantage.
McCray led all scorers in the first half with 10 points to go along with seven rebounds, while Spencer scored seven points with six assists. As a team, the Huskers shot 58 percent (14-of-24) from the field and 55.6 percent (5-of-9) from beyond the arc, but shot just one free throw in the first half.
Richardson said he could tell Nebraska was in for a better offensive showing based on what he had seen in practice the past few days.
"Like three days ago in practice we were just gelling the whole practice," Richardson said. "Shots were starting to fall, the offense felt like it was coming easier to the five guys on the floor. It just worked tonight. I just feel as a team we're getting more confident, and it's only going to get better if we continue to work hard and continue to look for easy shots."
After staring just 1-of-7 from the field and 0-of-4 from 3-point range to open the second half, Nebraska got things going once again and put together a 7-0 run to take its biggest lead yet at 45-33 on a basket by junior forward Mike Fox with 13:20 to play.
That wasn't enough to put Central Michigan away, though, as the Chippewas stayed within reach and even cut the lead back down to five at 50-45 with just over nine minutes left in the game.
The Huskers quickly bumped the lead back up to 10 on five straight points by Richardson, but once again CMU came right back with an 11-2 run that cut it to 57-56 on a pair of free throws by sophomore guard Trey Zeigler with five minutes left.
"We got up that one time about 10 or 11 points, and I thought we came down and took two really horrible shots," Sadler said. "Horrible shots, and they went down and made us pay for it. If you look at their track record, you knew they weren't going to go away, and anytime you have a player like Zeigler when they spread the floor out like they do, he's capable of getting it into the middle of the lane on you and they're capable of scoring some points."
The Chippewas kept on fighting until the buzzer finally sounded, finding a way to answer every time Nebraska looked to be putting the game away. In fact, they trailed by two possessions or less for all but 54 seconds of the final five minutes.
McCray ended the night with 11 points and eight rebounds, while Walker and junior forward Brandon Ubel both added 11 points as well. Zeigler scored a game-high 20 points to go along with eight rebounds and eight assists.
Nebraska will get the next two days off before returning to practice on Friday, when the Huskers will officially begin preparations for their very first Big Ten game.
Around the rim
***Nebraska looks to have dodged a huge injury blow, as Spencer injured his left thumb in the final minutes of the game and had to have his hand X-rayed. Luckily for NU the X-rays came back negative, as it turned out to be nothing more than a broken thumb nail.
***Sadler had no new updates on junior center Jorge Brian Diaz (feet) or junior guard Dylan Talley (thigh). He did said Diaz would be getting specialized shoe inserts from the Duke University foot specialist he saw over the summer delivered before Nebraska returns to practice on Friday.
***As for Talley, Sadler said he remains listed as day-to-day. Sadler said Talley's lingering deep thigh bruise has not shown any signs of improvement over the past few days.
"I have no idea," Sadler said of Talley's injury. "It's not any better than it was."
***After going to the line just once in the first half, Nebraska went 19-of-25 in the second. Sadler called that improvement the biggest key of all in the Huskers' win.
"I thought the biggest thing in the basketball game was at halftime we had been to the free throw line (once), and we got there 25 times the second half," Sadler said. "Even though we missed some free throws, we still shot around 77 percent, and I think that was the difference in the ball game."