It was only Nebraska's fourth Big 12 Conference game of the season, but as far as its NCAA Tournament hopes were concerned, it was already a must-win situation.
Needing to bounce back from two straight league road losses, the Huskers came up big when they had to and picked up a 79-67 win over Colorado on Tuesday night at the Devaney Center. Junior guard Toney McCray tied his career high with a team-best 18 points and eight rebounds, as NU improved to 14-4 overall and 2-2 in league play with the win.
"It was a must-win," McCray said. "We felt like it was a must-win. We feel like we've got to protect home court. Anytime we're at home it's a must-win. We needed that. Colorado was really on a roll, and their offense was really scoring a lot of points and getting to the free throw line. We definitely worked hard to be prepared for this game."
Nebraska came out of the gates looking like a team in a must-win situation, as the Huskers opened the game with a 13-3 run on 5-of-6 shooting from the field. Though back-to-back baskets by heralded guard Alec Burks brought Colorado back to 13-7, a monster put-back dunk by McCray off a missed 3 by Caleb Walker put NU back up by six and nearly brought the house down with 15:11 left in the half.
The momentum didn't last much longer than that, however, as the Buffaloes put together a 7-2 run of their own to cut it to 17-14 and eventually took their first lead of the night on a 3 by Marcus Relphorde to make it 23-22 with 6:37 remaining.
The teams would go on to trade the lead five more times the rest of the half, but the Huskers ended up going into halftime with a 31-30 advantage after a basket by junior center Andre Almeida with 28.5 left and then a tough defensive stand on the other side that ended with a charging foul on Burks.
Sophomore forward Jorge Brian Diaz led the way for Nebraska by scoring 10 of his 14 points in the first half, while McCray added nine points and four rebounds.
The Huskers carried that momentum right over into the second half, as they came out of halftime with a 15-4 run that gave them their biggest lead to that point at 46-35. Things only got better for NU, as Colorado was hit with two technical fouls in a span of four minutes to help increase the lead to as many as 17 at 61-44 with a little more than seven minutes to play.
Though it looked like Nebraska would cruise to the victory, the Buffaloes weren't going to go down that quietly. After scoring just eight points in the first half, Burks came out firing and scored seven straight points to fuel a 10-2 run that brought CU back to within 63-54 3:35 remaining in the game.
"Let's be real, with three minutes to go, I'm not for sure we weren't a little bit scared," head coach Doc Sadler said. "I'm not for sure that we weren't because we quit attacking. Even though we've won some ball games, we still need to win some tough ball games. So I'm excited for them. Every step they take is going to be a good step."
Colorado brought it to few as eight at 67-59 with 2:28 to go, but the Huskers came up with another clutch scoring spurt when Brandon Richardson, McCray and Jeter converted three straight fast break lay-ups to spark a 10-3 run and bump the lead up to 77-62 with 1:10 on the clock.
That would be all the Huskers would need, as they improved to 13-0 at home this season. Jeter finished with arguably one of his best all-around games of the year, scoring 10 points to go along with a season-high nine assists and six rebounds.
Drake Beranek matched his season high with 10 points off the bench, while Burks finished with a game-high 22 points and Levi Knutson had 17 off the bench for Colorado.
As a team, NU shot 56.6 percent from the field, its best so far in league play, and went 15-of-18 (83.3 percent) from the line. The Buffaloes committed 16 turnovers and shot 12-of-30 from 3-point range.
"I can't say enough about our team," Sadler said. "They had a good week last week as far as effort was concerned, but we didn't get anything done that we set out to do. Then to turn around and come right back and play on Tuesday night against a very good basketball team that was playing with a lot of confidence, I thought our guys rose to the occasion. I've said this: If we continue to improve, this team could be a good basketball team."
Nebraska returns to action on Saturday night when they travel to take on Texas Tech at 6:30 p.m. The Huskers will go into the game having lost their past 10 Big 12 road game, but considering they've already matched last year's conference win total, it's hard to complain about their start thus far.
"You realize how long it took us to get two wins last year?" Sadler asked. "It's something to be excited about. It's exciting. It's exciting to be the coach here. I've told y'all, this team could be something, and I believe in them, I really do."
Around the rim
***After the game, Sadler said the three keys he stressed to his team in order to beat Colorado were to limit their transition baskets, keep the ball out of the paint on defense and keep the Buffaloes off the free throw line.
In the end, CU had just four fast break points, was out-scored 44-22 in the paint and shot a total of nine free throws. Coming into the game, the Buffs were averaging 29 free throw attempts per game on the season.
"I can't even imagine it," Sadler said of holding Colorado to just 5-of-9 from the charity stripe. "I can't even imagine it, and they probably shouldn't even have shot nine because we had a couple bad fouls late. That's the difference. They're averaging making 22 a game in league play, and if they made 22 again tonight it would've been a different ball game."
***Sadler said Jeter re-aggravated the sprained wrist he suffered two weeks ago while taking a charge midway through the second half. After he came out following the injury, Colorado cut the deficit to as few as eight points. Even with the time missed, Jeter still played a team-high 33 minutes.
***Asked about how far his team could go this season if it kept up the defensive play it showed Tuesday night, Sadler said it would be the Huskers' play offensively which would determine how their season ends up.
"If we shoot it like this, I think we have a chance," he said. "Our defense is going to be there. I think it's been consistent enough. I don't care who you play, our defense is there. The only issue we have is can we score enough points. It's hard to win 63-62. We're holding people to those scores, but it's hard to win games unless you get in the high-60s, low-70s."
***Colorado head coach Tad Boyle said Nebraska's defense was the difference in the game Tuesday night. The Buffaloes, who came into the game ranked eight nationally with 83.3 points per game, were held under 70 points for just the second time all season.
"They're so well drilled," Boyle said. "They don't break down. That's the thing I think makes their defense so good. We're more of a pressure team, certainly. It's easier to replicate the sag than the pressure. We worked on it in practice and I thought we had it down.
"At times we executed and got some shots but we didn't do it consistently enough. Our guys got a little frustrated and lost our composure. We over-penetrated and that's the result of why we turned the ball over 16 times, which is uncharacteristic of our team. But again, you have to give Nebraska a lot of credit. Nebraska played well tonight and they deserved to win."