It was yet another frustrating near late-game collapse, but Nebraska will at least go into the start of Big Ten Conference play next week with some momentum, as it defeated Nicholls State 68-59 in Lincoln to wrap up the non-conference schedule on Saturday.
Senior forward Brandon Ubel scored a game-high 18 points while senior guard Dylan Talley and sophomore David Rivers both added 12 to improve the Huskers to 9-4 on the season.
Despite the win, though, head coach Tim Miles said he wasn't exactly pleased with the way his team handled what was supposed to be a significantly over-matched opponent.
"I had an issue with mentality, with aggressiveness and confidence," Miles said. "I think when you get punched, you just kind of freeze up, and I think that's what happened. As a coach, that doesn't matter. For instance, in the last minute and a half, you didn't have to run an offense. You just had to complete the first pass and hope that those 7-of-8 free throws you just missed flips the other way for you, which it did.
"You've got to get those guys in a competitive mode and they have to build confidence. I don't think we did that today and that's what's disappointing about the effort."
One of the big beefs Miles had was with the way Nebraska once again nearly let a big lead slip away in the second half. After letting Jacksonville State overcome a double-digit lead and rally back to within one possession three games ago, the Huskers watched a 31-17 halftime lead evaporate due to cold shooting and bad defense down the stretch.
Despite being severely undersized, Nicholls State controlled the paint throughout the second half and even out-scored the Huskers 30-24 inside for the game.
"I have one regret today," Miles said. "That with 7:47 left in the under-eight timeout, I said 'It's just like Jacksonville State. Let's go show them what we've got.' I shouldn't have said that... (I should have said) anything but that, I have a feeling. Late in the game you are supposed to say 'complete passes,' not 'don't turn the ball over.' They hear 'turn the ball over'. They don't hear the 'don't' part. I don't know what I should've said, but not that."
Ubel tried to explain why NU once again let a lead slip away in the second half, and he said a big part of it was the team mentally checking out of the game once they got up by as much as 19 points early on.
"That has something to do with it," Ubel said. "We just weren't moving as quickly in our rotations. We weren't filling gaps, so guys just saw open lanes to drive and then we were getting beat one-on-one. It takes five guys to guard the ball, and we were trying to do it with one guy, and that one guy was getting beat. We all need to do a better job of playing 40 minutes of defense together."
Miles said the way NSU was able to control the paint, especially in the second half, was something for which he was still trying to find a explanation.
"I asked the guys afterward and said, 'You tell me,'" Miles said. "I'm only a so-so mind reader. What did you feel? And Brandon Ubel said, 'I thought we mentally relaxed. I thought once we got ahead, we just (coasted).' And every possession has to matter to you. These kids nowadays with AAU are a part of a larger societal problem. They play so many games.
"When I was a kid, if you missed a practice or a game, that crushed you and broke your heart. That's not the case anymore. Now we're playing games all the time from whatever game on. Life's just a big game. That's not what it's really about. Truly, every possession has to matter to you. When things get tight, you have to eliminate fear, worry and doubt. I don't think we did that in any way, shape or form."
With that being said, Miles said taking anything for granted going into Big Ten play was simply not an option for Nebraska. The Huskers will open up their conference slate on the road at Ohio State on Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. CT.
"We're the underdog, so we've got nothing to lose," Miles said. "Let's go figure it out and try to win the game."