Once again, Nebraska defied the odds and went blow for blow with a nationally ranked Big Ten opponent on the road. Once again, though, the Huskers came up just short of pulling off the upset.
Despite not having senior leader Brandon Ubel (elbow) in the lineup, Nebraska went on the road and scored its highest point total of conference play and hung with No. 22 Michigan State until the final minutes in a 66-56 loss on Sunday in East Lansing, Mich.
The 10-point margin is certainly deceiving, as the Huskers (9-8 overall, 0-4 Big Ten) were within one point of the Spartans in the final two minutes before the Spartans (14-3, 3-1) broke away with a12-2 run to close out the game.
"I think our guys battled hard," head coach Tim Miles said during his post-game radio show on the Husker Sports Network. "I told them, 'If you believe in process, you have to believe we're in the right direction.' If you're a shallow person and only need a win to get you over the top, then we're going to have problems. You can't live that way right now. You have to just battle and stay with the course and we'll be OK."
In Nebraska's first three Big Ten losses, it averaged just 48 points per game. On Sunday, the Huskers put up 32 in the first half alone.
By finally knocking down the majority of their open jumpers, the Huskers were able to keep pace with the Spartans throughout the first 20 minutes and even led for a good chunk of the final 10 minutes of the half.
Hitting 42 percent of its shots from the field, NU never trailed by more than five early on and eventually came back and took a 23-19 lead on an And-1 by sophomore David Rivers with eight minutes to go in the half. That capped an 11-2 run by Nebraska that gave it its biggest lead of the night.
The Spartans, who shot 54 percent themselves, quickly responded with a 9-2 run of their own and reclaimed the lead at 28-25 on a basket by point guard Keith Appling 3:30 left. But the Huskers came right back and jumped back up 32-28 after Rivers banked in a 3 to beat the shot clock buzzer with 1:32 to go.
A pair of free throws by MSU center Derrick Nix with 16 seconds remaining tied the game up at 32-32 going into halftime. Rivers scored 12 of his game-high 18 points in the first half to lead the Huskers, and he ended up shooting a perfect 8-of-8 from the field. Guard Branden Dawson, who temporarily left the game with a knee injury in the second half, had 10 of his 12 points in the first half to lead Michigan State.
Nebraska continued to keep pace on into the second half, as it either led or had the game tied three times in the first 12 minutes of the half and never trailed by more than five points during that span.
The Huskers tied it up at 48-48 on a 3-pointer by junior guard Ray Gallegos with 7:48 left, and then Gallegos brought to a one-point deficit with a lay-up to make it 55-54 with 2:36 to go. That, however, would be as close as they would get the rest of the night.
Nebraska had three straight opportunities to take its first lead of the second half but was unable to capitalize. As a result, Michigan State scored 10 unanswered points in the final two minutes, and put an exclamation point on the win with an alley-oop dunk by Dawson as the game clock expired.
"I thought there was some fatigue, no doubt about it," Miles said. "We tried to get some timeouts - I think we burned all of our time outs just trying to buy some time. It was a game I thought the game was played fast, and then we got into foul trouble early in the second half and we just ran up the bonus right away. They were on the attack. They were fired up, and they were going to try and put us away right away, but they couldn't. You've got to credit our kids for that."
Only seven players saw the court in the loss for NU, and it definitely didn't help that both freshman Shavon Shields and senior center Andre Almeida fouled out late in the second half. With essentially no size in the low post, Michigan State's Nix and Adreian Payne took over as the game went on, combining for 31 points and Nix scoring 11 of his 17 in the second half.
"Payne and Nix were 12-for-15 between the two of them, and Andre goes 0-for-4," Miles said. "I'm not throwing anybody under the bus, but we need more than that out of Andre… It was just one of those nights that their inside guys hurt us and they were a mismatch. It was hard to get those guys under control."
Senior guard Dylan Talley finished with 17 points, a season-high eight rebounds and four assists in what Miles called his best overall game playing primarily the point guard position. Gallegos added 12 points, while the Huskers shot 39.7 percent as a team.
The Huskers will continue to search for that elusive first Big Ten win when they return home on Wednesday to take on Purdue, with tip-off set for 7 p.m. CT. While their 0-4 start to league play has obviously been frustrating and disappointing, the fact that Miles' squad continues to fight and show improvement at least gives some reason for optimism.
"We've just got to stay with it," Miles said. "We've got to stay with it and you've got to believe you're going to build on what you've done, not, 'OK, we've played one well, now when's the letdown going to come?' You've got to play like we're building on this. We've got to grow and we've got to develop.
"Little things. We scored 56 points. Big deal. But most people probably expected us to score 36 tonight. Our kids are staying on it. I think that if they believe in the process, they're going to be OK."
Around the rim
***Ubel's injury forced him to miss only the second game of his career, snapping a streak of 94 straight appearances. He had started Nebraska's past 47 games before suffering the injury against Michigan.
Miles said there was still no clear timetable as to when Ubel might be ready to return to action.
"There's no set number," Miles said. "It's when he has mobility and the extension in the elbow. I don't know when that's going to be. It just depends."
***Rivers made his first career start against Michigan State, as Nebraska used its third different lineup of the season. His 18 points were the second-highest total of his career. His perfect 8-for-8 shooting on the night was one off Nebraska's single-game record for shots made without a miss.
***Gallegos tied a career high with three steals and two blocked shots.
***Jordan Tyrance had two blocked shots and two assists while playing a career high 12 minutes.
***Nebraska has now held 16 of its 17 opponents under 50 percent shooting and 14 of 17 teams under their scoring average.