It was a game that was supposed to help Nebraska get its season back on track, but Ohio Valley Conference foe Jacksonville State ended up giving the Huskers far more than they bargained for.
Despite leading by as much as 15 points midway through the second half, the Huskers saw their lead dwindle down to just one point in the final 30 seconds. It wasn't until a pair of free throws by senior Dylan Talley with just six seconds left that they were finally able to put the game away for a 59-55 win Tuesday night.
While it may have been far too close for comfort, the victory still improved NU to 7-3 on the year and put an end to a brief but ugly losing skid after suffering two straight 20-point losses.
"We were up I think 13 at the under-eight (minute) timeout, and I said, 'OK, here's how you win the game: from the under-eight to the under-four, you extend the lead. You extend the lead. Just play your butt off, play defense, handle the ball well, be on the on the attack,'" head coach Tim Miles said. "And whatever their run was from there, we just did completely the opposite.
"It was so disappointing. We were fortunate. We just plain got lucky."
It was a game of runs in the first half, as three big scoring spurts between the teams saw the lead and the momentum change hands four times. After falling behind early, it was the Huskers who struck first with a 9-1 run to take an 11-6 advantage.
The Gamecocks quickly answered with a 14-2 run of their own in which Nebraska made just one basket in nearly eight full minutes and didn't score a point for more than six minutes.
Trailing 20-13 with just under 10 minutes to go, though, the Huskers came right back and closed the half with a 16-2 run to reclaim the lead and go into halftime up 29-22. Jacksonville State, which shot just 31 percent (8-of-26) from the field in the first half, didn't make a basket for the final 9:38 of the half, and its only two points during that stretch came on a goaltending call on Nebraska.
The Huskers had their scoring droughts but ended up shooting 48 percent (11-of-23) in the first half, led by nine points from senior forward Brandon Ubel and a breakout night by freshman guard Shavon Shields, who scored seven on his career-high 14 points in the first half.
"We had a great defensive stand to end the half - eight straight (stops) and 13 out of 14 possessions," Miles said. "We went from up five to down seven to up seven, and that was really good defense. I thought we did a lot of good things, but you have to finish the ball game. It's a 40-minute game, and you've got to have some courage. That helps."
Nebraska was able to keep the Gamecocks at bay for most of the second half, going up by as much as 15 points. Shields, who came into the game averaging just 3.5 points and had scored just 14 all season, scored six straight at one point to help NU take its biggest lead of the night at 15 with seven minutes left.
"Brandon and Ray (Gallegos) and Dylan were all being keyed in on, so that opened things up for me," Shields said. "Every time Dylan would drive they would crash in on him, and every time Ubel had the ball they were looking that way, so it opened up cuts and lanes and things like that for me. So they helped me out a lot."
It wasn't exactly a cruise to the finish line, however. With their offense going cold and unable to stop JSU defensively, the Huskers eventually saw their lead shrink down to four in the final minute.
A 3-pointer by Ronnie Boggs with 21 seconds left cut the lead to one at 56-55, and suddenly a once sure win was on the cusp on being a devastating loss.
"We just kind of stopped playing," Ubel said. "I think we looked up at the scoreboard and felt a little too comfortable. You give Jacksonville State a lot of credit, because they didn't stop playing. They played for 40 minutes, and we played for 32."
Senior guard Ray Gallegos had a chance to push the lead back up to three but missed the second of two free throws with 20 seconds left, giving the Gamecocks a chance to tie or take the lead. Brian Williams ended up getting a clear drive at the basket, but his lay-up hit off the back of the rim and into the hands of Talley.
Talley was fouled with six seconds remaining and knocked down both of his free throws to let the Huskers walk away with a four-point victory.
Ubel ended the night with a team-high 15 points and 10 rebounds while Talley followed up with 10 points. As a team, the Huskers shot 45.7 percent from the field and 17-of-21 (81 percent) from the free throw line. They were 0-of-5 from beyond the arc.
Jacksonville State on the other hand was just 17-of-47 (36.2 percent) from the field and was led by a game-high points from Rackley.
The Huskers will look to continue to build some momentum back up this weekend when they travel to El Paso, Texas, for the Sun Bowl Invitational, starting with Central Michigan on Saturday at 6 p.m. CT.
"It's big to get a win," Ubel said. "If we want to get to any type of post-season at all, we've got to get these next few out and get on into conference play and try to sneak a couple on the road and take care of home court. This one tonight and these next three (non-conference games) are big for us, so we've got to stay focused and try to put a full 40 minutes together."
Around the rim
***Despite shooting a respectable 45.7 percent, Miles said he still wasn't happy with his team's offensive performance on Tuesday night.
"No. I was not pleased with our offense," Miles said. "We got to the foul line more, and then we just stopped. We didn't make a 3."
***Shields set his career high for the third straight game with 14 points, as he had seven at Oregon on Dec. 15. Shields also tied or set personal bests in rebounds (3) and steals (2).
"Shields was good," Miles said. "I thought Shavon really played his best game. That's as good as I've seen him, and I thought threw us a life line for a long time."
***Prior to tonight, the last time Nebraska didn't hit a 3-pointer was against Vanderbilt during the 2010-11 season. The last time the Huskers didn't hit a 3 and won was back in 1998.
***Ubel picked up his third double-double of the season and fourth of his career.
***Nebraska has now held five of its first 10 opponents to 60 points or less .
***Nebraska's bench outscored Jacksonville State 18-4. It is the third straight game NU's bench has outscored its opponent's.