Having gone nearly a full month without winning a home game, the talk all week going into Nebraska's showdown with Northwestern on Saturday had been its recent struggles inside the Bob Devaney Sports Center.
With one of their more focused home efforts of the season, the Huskers put that talk to rest with an impressive 64-49 win over the Wildcats to pick up their second victory in Big Ten Conference play and first league home win.
After a dismal start to the game offensively, Nebraska (11-10 overall, 2-6 Big Ten) shot 54.2 percent from the field and scored 40 points in the second half and led by as many as 18 points before all was said and done. Northwestern, who was coming off upset wins over No. 12 Minnesota and Illinois and nearly knocked off No. 7 Indiana, shot just 32.1 percent after halftime, the lowest by an NU opponent this season
The win wasn't just NU's first conference home victory of the season, it was also its first since knocking off Illinois last year on Feb. 18, 2012.
"I think they responded pretty well," head coach Tim Miles said. "I think they wanted to show everybody we're proud to be Huskers and we want to represent the right way and we want to defend our home floor, and they did. They did a good job."
You could call the first half a great display of defense from both teams, or just some bad shooting all around. The Huskers opened the game hitting just one of their first 10 shots, but Northwestern wasn't much better, starting just 3-of-10 from the field.
About midway through the half, though, NU finally got things going and went on a 10-1 run capped off by a steal and breakaway lay-up by freshman point guard Benny Parker to take a 15-11 lead with 7:39 left. It definitely helped that the Wildcats went a full seven minutes without a field goal during that stretch.
Oddly enough, the half ended with a barrage of five of 3-pointers over the final three minutes, including two from senior guard Dylan Talley, and Nebraska ended up going into halftime with a slim 24-22 lead despite shooting just 37 percent (10-of-27).
Talley led NU with 10 of his team-high 20 points in the first half, while Northwestern point guard Dave Sobolewski also had 10 of his game-high 21 points to lead the Wildcats, who only shot 32 percent (8-of-25) through the first 20 minutes.
"I thought we had good energy level going out in the game, and we missed some open shots and then we made some rash decisions and took some bad shots," Miles said. "Then we kind of steadied ourselves a little bit, and once we got even at 11, I thought then like, 'We're OK. Now we can go.' I thought we were pretty good from there on out."
The Huskers were able to steadily increase their lead over the first 10 minutes of the second half, and eventually went up by their biggest margin to that point at 44-33 after back-to-back 3-pointers by junior guard Ray Gallegos.
A fast-break dunk by Gallegos and two straight buckets by Talley would put Nebraska up 56-40 with four minutes to go, marking the Huskers' biggest home lead since being up 13 on Nebraska-Omaha back on Nov. 18 in the third game of the season.
"Last couple home games we came out flat, and I feel like this game we came out with a sense of urgency," Talley said. "We went out there with a purpose, and that was to play hard and just let it all hang and see what happens."
The lead wouldn't drop below 13 points the rest of the way, as the Huskers made enough free throws down the stretch and continued to stifle Northwestern's offense until the final buzzer. The 40 points NU scored in the second half were certainly impressive for a team that scored 38, 41, 42, 44 and 47 points total in five losses this season.
Senior forward Brandon Ubel hauled in his fourth double-double of the year with 14 points and 12 rebounds, while Gallegos finished with 11 points for the Huskers. Northwestern's Jared Swopshire also picked up a double-double with 11 points and a game-high 16 rebounds.
With momentum back on its side, Nebraska will try and keep it going on the road when it travels to take on Minnesota on Tuesday night.
"We really needed this one," Miles said. "We'll really need the next one. We'll need the next one. But definitely, you wouldn't want to have to go next week on the road to Minnesota with only one win in the league. And the fact that Northwestern went to Illinois and won and then they beat Minnesota, I mean, that's a quality win for us. And I think it maybe shows our guys that if we do it right, we hang in there, we can do this."
Around the rim
***Gallegos ended the day having shot just 4-of-11 from the field and 3-of-8 from 3-point range, but compared to some of the ice-cold shooting performances he's had the past couple weeks, just being able to see the ball go through the basket a few times was a reward in itself. Miles said Gallegos' bounce-back game was a direct result of the hours of extra work Gallegos has put in recently to get his shot back on track.
"He's just had his head down (lately), because nobody's harder on themselves than Ray," Miles said. "We practiced last night and Ray stayed for an hour and a half practicing his shot. I get here this morning at 8 and he's got a full sweat going and he's already been here. There's a young guy who's working for it, and I was so happy to see that success the second half. When he made his first one he kind of hung that follow-though up there a little extra long, and that's good. I know that if we can get him good looks, he'll make them."
***Senior center Andre Almeida did not play in Saturday's win. Miles said Almeida hit his head earlier in the week and did not practice at all in preparation for Northwestern.
"My idea was, if you can't practice against this team, which is such a system defensive game plan, it's probably going to be hard to play you," Miles said. "But Minnesota's the best offensive rebounding team in the country, and so he's going to play on Tuesday, plenty. We're going to need him."
***Not only did Talley ended up with 20 points and eight rebounds, he also held one of Northwestern's top scorers, guard Reggie Hearn, to just six points on 2-of-11 shooting on the defensive end.
"I'm just happy we got the win," Talley said. "It hasn't hit me. I mean, people were telling me how good of a game I played; I'm just happy we got our first home win in the Big Ten."
***On Monday, Miles said NU assistant Craig Smith called Northwestern "the purest form of the Princeton offense" he'd seen. With Smith running the scout preparations going into the game, the Huskers held the Wildcats to their second-lowest scoring output of the season.
"I thought we had these guys really well scouted," Miles said. "Coach Smith had the scouting out, and he does a really nice job. We were in a position to guard their actions. I thought they did. Toward the end, we kind of made them one-dimensional. They shot almost 30 3s, and that's fine. You have to win the paint against Princeton teams."
***After two straight disappointing home losses, Talley said the best part about Saturday's win was sending the Nebraska fans home happy with a victory.
"It felt good," Talley said. "We want the fans to leave with a smile on their face. They come out and support us. They could've stayed at home after the way we came out flat the last two home games against Purdue and Illinois. They had every reason, I feel, to not even come out this game, but they still came out. We were able to get a win, and happy for that. We got to pay them back."