Nebraska was supposed to be entering the stretch of its non-conference schedule where it was going to get a hard dose of reality against stiffer competition. So far, the Huskers are continuing to float on Cloud 9.
With another red-hot shooting night by senior guard Ray Gallegos and a swarming defensive performance in the second half, the Huskers cruised past Southern Cal on Monday night to improve to an improbable 6-1 in their first season under head coach Tim Miles. The win marks their best start since 2008-09.
Gallegos tied his career-high with 20 points on a career-high six 3-pointers, as NU had the lead for all but three minutes in the first half. The Trojans' 51 points on the night were their lowest total of the season.
"The confidence is building," senior guard Dylan Talley said. "Everyone's starting to play better… Obviously, Ray's been shooting the ball off the charts the past few games. We're just starting to click a lot better than we did before. We just keep playing tough defense and we're just going to keep trying to get better."
Defense was in full force through the 10 minutes of the game, and so were the referees' whistles, as there were more fouls called than field goals made for much of the early portion of the first half. It wasn't until about the four-minute mark that Gallegos found some of that shooting magic he had in the second half against Wake Forest and got things going for the Huskers.
With the game tied at 22-22 and 3:56 left before halftime, Gallegos hit three 3-pointers and scored Nebraska's final 11 points of the half to send NU into the locker room with a 33-25 lead.
The Huskers were 6-of-9 from beyond the arc to just 1-of-2 by USC, which helped them overcome 10 first half turnovers, including five straight at one point and seven over a nine-possession span. Nebraska finished the night with a season-high 15 turnovers.
"It was seven our of nine possessions with turnovers was the only time that we gave up the lead," Miles said. "Once we just got the ball moving a little bit and cutting and moving and got the ball where it needed to be, in and out, we were OK."
That momentum carried on over into the second half, as Nebraska kicked things off with a 11-2 run and pushed its lead up to 17. The Trojans certainly didn't help their cause, either, going more than 10 minutes from the final 3:20 of the first half to 12:51 left in the second without making a field goal.
"We just kept grinding at it on the offensive side, and when the offense wasn't clicking, we were just focused on getting stops," Talley said. "Eventually, Ray was quiet in the first half, but he came alive at the end of the first half when we needed him, and we just rode his wave."
Two more 3s by Gallegos helped NU take its biggest lead of the night at 52-32 with just over 10 minutes remaining. Even though USC used an 11-3 run of its own to cut the score down to 12 with six minutes to play, it was pretty much cruise control from there on for the Huskers.
Talley didn't have his best night at 4-of-15 shooting with five turnovers, but still managed to finish with 14 points, while senior forward Brandon Ubel added nine points, seven rebounds and four assists. J.T. Terrell led the Trojans with 14 points.
Things won't get any easier for Nebraska from here, as it now sets its sights on Thursday night's in-state rivalry showdown with No. 16 Creighton. As much as the Huskers may have exceeded outside expectations thus far, they know it won't mean anything if they don't keep it up and continue to improve.
"We're just going out and trying to win every possible game, and the next one's Creighton," Miles said. "We know that's an important game with the state rivalry. We know they're nationally ranked. They've got a great team, a team of a lifetime… We're just trying to find a way to win every game, and tonight I'll go to work and talk about trying to figure out how to beat Creighton."
Around the rim
***Miles was asked if there were any updates on 2013 New Zealand guard recruit Tai Webster, who was at the game with his parents on his official visit. Miles declined to comment seeing how it would an NCAA violation to talk about an unsigned recruit.
***What is known about Webster's first Husker game experience is that he got the royal treatment from NU fans. Chats of "We want Webster!" filled the arena on a couple occasions and several New Zealand flags were being waved in the Red Zone. Even former Husker legend Erick Strickland sat and chatted with Webster's family for most of the game.
***Miles said freshman point guard Benny Parker "knocked his head" and hurt his foot/ankle earlier in the week and was only about 70-75 percent in the game. Parker finished with five points, two rebounds, two turnovers and zero assists.
***Freshman Shavon Shields, who missed five of the first six games with a lingering elbow injury, returned to the lineup Monday and scored his first points as a Husker on a lay-up with 11 minutes left in the second half.
***Talley had one of the more entertaining baskets of the year in the second half when he threw up a prayer 3-pointer with the shot clock down to one second and rainbowed it in to hit nothing but the bottom of the net.
"Oh that was just lucky," Talley said. "I heard everybody counting down, and I just stepped back and just threw it up."
***After one of his six 3-pointers in the win, Gallegos exchanged a few words with USC guard Jio Fontan, who was guarding him much of the night. Apparently Fontan had been talking a little trash to Gallegos during the game, and that was just Gallegos' way of keeping him quiet.
"He was just talking (trash) to me a little bit before hand, so it was more of an in-the-moment type of thing I guess," Gallegos said.
So did he get his point across?
"I think so."