The theme for Nebraska basketball over the past decade or so has been the same: win a big game, then follow it up with a complete clunker.
That was exactly the case for the Huskers once again on Thursday night, as they followed up their impressive upset win over No. 17 Ohio State earlier in the week with a sloppy and uninspired loss on the road to Penn State, 58-54. Nebraska shot just 35.8 percent from the field in the game, including just 9-of-28 in the second half, and committed 14 turnovers that led to 22 points for the Nittany Lions, who snapped a six-game losing streak and picked up their first Big Ten Conference victory of the season.
"It was just an embarrassment the last two minutes of the game," head coach Tim Miles said during his post-game radio show on the Husker Sports Network. "Just the lack of execution and the decision making that went into those plays. It was just too bad, because we had done enough to even put ourselves in a position for a tight win, but to just give it away…"
The game opened as more of a 3-point shooting contest than anything, as neither team did much to get the ball in the lane and settled for one perimeter shot after another early on. In fact, 10 of the first 13 shots of the game were from behind the arc, and six of the first eight baskets made were 3-pointers.
Things eventually settled down a bit, and Nebraska was slowly able to jump out to a 26-17 lead with on a 3 by junior point guard Deverell Biggs with 4:40 left to cap off a 10-2 run. While the Huskers were by no means red hot offensively, Penn State was about as bad as it could be in the first half, shooting just 24.1 percent from the field while going more than nine minutes without a basket and missing 13 shots in a row at one point.
The bad news was that NU wasn't exactly able to take advantage of the Nittany Lions' dry spell, as it countered by going more than four and a half minutes with a point. With just over a minute left in the half, guard John Johnson finally broke PSU's scoreless streak with a 3-pointer and then followed it up with a steal and layup to cut the lead to 26-22 with 36 seconds left.
Luckily for the Huskers sophomore forward Walter Pitchford stopped the bleeding with a 3-pointer just before the halftime buzzer to go into the locker room with a 29-22 advantage. The two teams combined to shoot just 17-of-54 from the field in the first half.
Nebraska didn't get any better to start the second half, as Penn State jumped out with a 9-3 run to cut it to 32-31 within the first three minutes. A 3-pointer by sophomore guard Terran Petteway pushed NU's lead back up eight a few minutes later, and the Huskers were able to keep the Nittany Lions at bay until under the seven-minute mark.
That's when Penn State finally took charge again and put together an 8-0 run that gave it its first lead since six minutes into the first half at 47-45 on a basket by D.J. Newbill with 4:19 to play. A 3-pointer by sophomore forward Shavon Shields and a layup by Biggs reclaimed the lead for NU with 2:24 to go, but the Nittany Lions came right back with another 9-0 run.
"I thought that was an important part of the game when were weren't able to extend (the lead)," Miles said. "It was just some real simple defensive errors that allowed them to score when they hadn't been scoring. We just kind of relaxed a little bit and we didn't keep up the defensive intensity."
The turning point of the game came with just over a minute left, when Biggs lost the ball at mid-court and Tim Frazier jumped on it, passed it out to Newbill who then threw down a one-handed dunk while being fouled by Shields. The basket and free throw put PSU up 53-51, and then a missed 3 by Pitchford was immediately followed by a trey by Brandon Taylor to bump the deficit to 56-51 with 16.5 remaining.
Petteway kept the game alive with a 3-pointer with 11.4 left to cut it two, and the Huskers seemed to get a huge break when Penn State threw the ensuing inbounds pass out of bounds to give the Huskers the ball back with 10.4 to play. Nebraska couldn't do anything with the golden opportunity, though, as Biggs lost the ball at the top of the key and Frazier was fouled with just half of a second left on the clock. Frazier made both free throws to put the game away and hand the Huskers a devastating 58-54 defeat.
"You talk about 'inexplicable,'" Miles said. "I guess the defining moment was, for whatever reason, Deverell at the end tries to just drive middle. They take it from him, and Newbill goes down and dunks it and somebody comes in and fouls him, which was unnecessary too. It was just our failure to execute anything."
Petteway led NU with 15 points while Gallegos had 10 points, and Shields chipped in six points and 10 rebounds. That wasn't enough to top the four Penn State players who scored in double figures, though, led by 16 points from Newbill.
The lone bit of good news for the Huskers is that they won't get much time to dwell on the loss, as they return home to take on Minnesota on Sunday at 5 p.m.
"You have to be resilient and bounce back," Miles said. "The old Etch-A-Sketch, you know? Shake it up, forget about it and move forward… I think Minnesota is playing really, really well. They're nationally ranked now, and I mean they will embarrass us if we perform the way we did the last four minutes of the game."