After nearly a month of only tasting disappointing loss after disappointing loss since the start of Big 12 Conference play, Nebraska was finally able to put it all together for a full 40 minutes and pick up its first league victory of the season, 63-46 over Oklahoma Saturday night.
The win not only snapped a five-game losing streak for the Huskers, it also gave a desperately needed boost in morale for a team that just couldn't seem to catch a break.
"Wednesday night (after losing to Colorado) I was asked a question about how I thought this team would respond, and I said, 'I don't know if we're going to win the game Saturday or not, but I can tell you this - I like this basketball team, and I think this team is going to respond like everybody would want it to,'" head coach Doc Sadler said. "I knew this team tonight, win or lose, was going to come out and look people in the eyes and play aggressive. That's the only way we can play. This team's been practicing too good to not be rewarded with some wins."
While part of the credit for the game's outcome could be given to Oklahoma's (12-9 overall, 3-4 Big 12) dismal shooting the entire night, Nebraska (13-8, 1-5) still made enough plays when it had to and controlled the game from essentially the opening tip-off.
In fact, the Huskers never trailed in the game.
Sophomore guard Brandon Richardson led the way with 16 points, while Anderson finished with 11 and Diaz added 10 points and seven rebounds.
"I'm proud of this team, man," Sadler said. "They've been busting their tails, and it's good to see that they were rewarded."
For maybe the first time in the past five games, things actually went Nebraska's way for the majority of the first half, as the Huskers hit some timely shots and shut Oklahoma down defensively to take a 29-20 lead into halftime.
With the Sooners hitting just three of their 11 3-pointers, NU was slowly able to build a lead and sustain it throughout the entire first half. After jumping out to an 11-3 lead to open the game, Nebraska saw its lead shrink down to 21-20 when Oklahoma's Andrew Fitzgerald hit a basket with 2:54 left in the half.
However, the Huskers responded with an 8-0 run to close out the half, capped off by a 3-pointer by senior guard Ryan Anderson from the corner.
The second half was only more of the same for the Huskers, as they opened up with another 6-2 run and eventually built up a 17-point advantage at 49-32 behind seven-straight points by Richardson and a basket by redshirt freshman center Jorge Brian Diaz with 8:31 left.
The Sooners didn't exactly go down quietly, as they made one last push and cut the deficit to 49-38 on a 3-pointer by freshman guard Tommy Mason-Griffin with 6:38 to go.
On the ensuing possession, though, Diaz stole the momentum right back for the Huskers when he threw down a monster put-back dunk off a Richardson miss to bump the lead back up to 13.
Oklahoma did come as close as nine points in the final five minutes, but it simply wasn't enough to keep the Huskers from getting their first win since Jan. 5.
"It started in practice," Richardson said. "Coach talked about how we needed to be more aggressive, and that's what we emphasized and it translated to the game. Coach is always talking about how we need to have carryover from practice to the game, and that's what we brought tonight."
As happy as Nebraska was to finally get a win, there won't be much time to celebrate, as it must turn right around and get ready to play host to No. 13 Kansas State on Tuesday night.
Still, there's no doubt that the feeling the Huskers walked off the court with on Saturday night will last at least a day or two longer than usual.
"It's huge, but we've got to look forward," Richardson said. "We can dwell on it now, but it starts tomorrow in practice getting ready for Tuesday's game. But I'm proud of our guys tonight."
Richardson comes up big
Not only did Richardson lead the Huskers in the box score, he also set the tone for the entire team on both ends of the floor, especially in the second half. Though he's struggled with injuries all season, the Los Angeles native has been able to gut it out and establish himself as Nebraska's heartbeat on the court.
"Brandon's probably been if not the most consistent player we've had all year, he's one of them," Sadler said. "He can bring some things like energy defensively, offensively. Whatever he can bring is always positive."
There was definitely a noticeable difference in Richardson's approach on Saturday, as he was far more aggressive and confident with the ball in his hands. When the Huskers needed a big basket, it seemed he was always there to come through with a clutch 3-pointer or mid-range jumper.
"My biggest complaint with Brandon is that he's got to get aggressive offensively," Sadler said. "(When he does) those are the things that he can do."
Richardson said he was more aggressive on the offensive end than he had been earlier this season, though he gave all the credit for his performance to his teammates.
"I thought I did OK," Richardson said. "All the credit goes to my teammates. They put me in a position to score the ball. They put me in positions to make things happen. Without those guys, I wouldn't be here."
His teammates, however, made sure to give credit where credit was due.
"When he's healthy, he's probably the best player out there," junior guard Lance Jeter said. "Just the way he shoots and his aggressiveness defensively makes him one of the most important guys on this team."
NU has one of best defensive outings yet
Averaging 74.9 points per game coming into Saturday's game, Oklahoma hadn't exactly been lighting up the scoreboard this season.
Still, whenever a team is held nearly 30 points below their season scoring average, it's certainly a stat worth noting. By keeping the Sooners to just 46 points, Nebraska may have put out arguably one of its best overall defensive performances in Big 12 play, if not the whole season.
Not only that, the Huskers also forced 15 turnovers and held OU to just 34.9-percent shooting from the field, including going 8-of-22 from 3-point range.
"There's no question," Sadler said. "At least in league play it was out best performance, because we were aggressive again. I thought in the first half we missed two or three opportunities when we didn't get out and be as aggressive as we were the whole time. This team, that's the only chance we've got."
Both Sadler and his players said a light might have turned on for the team the past few days of practice regarding the amount of effort it must put forth each game to have any chance at getting their first Big 12 win.
Now that they got a first-hand example of that theory in action, Sadler is hoping his squad has similar showings the rest of the season.
"I know this, this team has no chance to succeed unless we play harder than everybody else," he said. "When we do that, we can play with most teams… Now they realize, hey, we've got to bring it. We've got to bring it if we're going to have a chance to win. We can't just show up.
"We were just more aggressive. I mean, they missed shots too, but I think the shots that we didn't challenge were the shots that they made. The shots that we did challenge, good things happened."