It wasn't quite the same atmosphere as the electric win over Florida Gulf Coast in the season opener, but Nebraska's 62-47 victory over Western Illinois on Tuesday night was still another step in the right direction for the talented but inexperienced Huskers.
Sophomore forward Walter Pitchford scored a career-high 14 points while the reigning Big Ten Player of the Week Shavon Shields added 13 points and five rebounds, as Nebraska (2-0) took a big first-half lead but took its foot off the gas a bit in a sluggish second half. Still, after jumping out to an eight-point lead to start the game, NU has yet to trail through its first two games of the season.
"We just, over the last seven and a half minutes, I thought we kind of went into non-compete mode," head coach Tim Miles said. "Whether that be immaturity, softness, mentally weak. You want me to go on? … I'd rather have it done in practice, but it'll be a good lesson, and sometimes you have to learn the lesson. It will be a good lesson, but it's not one we want to accept readily."
With a pair of 3-pointers by Pitchford and sophomore wing Terran Petteway, Nebraska quickly took an 8-0 lead to open the game, but that quickly was erased when Western Illinois (0-2) answered with seven straight points of its own. That's when junior power forward Leslee Smith checked into the game, providing NU with some physicality inside and immediately making an impact with six points in his first three minutes of action.
Pitchford helped pick up the slack by going on a scoring burst of his own, putting in eight consecutive points to spark a 19-5 Husker run and bump the lead up to 31-14 with just under four minutes left in the half. Nebraska closed out the half with six unanswered points to take a 36-17 advantage into halftime, capping off a solid overall defensive performance over the first 20 minutes.
While the Huskers shot 56.5 percent from the field, including 14 points from Pitchford and 10 from Shields, they held Western Illinois to 31.8 percent shooting and forced nine Leatherneck turnovers in the first half.
"I thought our first 24, 25 minutes were pretty good," Miles said. "I thought the kids came out locked in. Shavon really made some good plays early, Walter made some really big plays early, and I thought we kind of seized control… We kind of got a little tired, they stayed on the attack. They made a couple 3s, and they get physical with us and we start kind of whining a little bit and don't play the way we can.
"So it was a good lesson to learn, because there was a stark contrast the last 14 minutes of the game, I thought. If that lead's not so big (at halftime), we don't win. So there's going to be a lot to learn on tape for this team, a young team that's trying to figure out how to win and how to sustain intensity and execute well. This is a good lesson for us."
Things slowed down quite a bit in the second half, as fouls and free throws were the dominant theme after halftime. After just nine combined free throws in the first half, Nebraska (15) and Western Illinois (13) shot a total of 28 attempts from the line in the final 20 minutes. That helped contribute to an overall lethargic level of play on both ends, but especially when the Huskers had the ball. The Huskers shot just 32 percent (8-of-25) from the field in the second half and were actually out-scored 30-26.
Before an offensive rebound and And-1 put-back by Petteway with five minutes left in the game, NU had gone nearly six full minutes without a field goal, and a once 23-point lead trimmed down to 15 when Nebraska went the final 3:42 without making a basket from the floor.
"We got a little sluggish, but I mean, just mental stuff," Pitchford said. "We'll be better. We just need to lock in for these next couple days, because we're going to be playing even better teams."
Petteway had another strong night with 13 points and nine rebounds, while Smith finished with 10 points and five rebounds. Freshman point guard Tai Webster had eight points and three boards in his second game as a Husker, but also had three turnovers to just one assist. Forward Tate Stensgaard led Western Illinois with 10 points.
It wasn't the prettiest all-around effort, and Nebraska knows it must kick the energy back up a few notches in a hurry, as the schedule continues to beef up moving forward. The Huskers return to action on Sunday when they host South Carolina State (0-2) at 2 p.m. CT.
"The main thing is we have to come out how we did Friday for every game," Pitchford said. "That's just the learning experience. For these next couple days, I'm pretty sure Coach will be stressing that to us, and we'll just be taking it in and listening and make sure we're doing it… We'll get adjusted quick, I can tell you that. We all want to win, so we all buy into the system and we're all loyal to each other. It's not all about one person, it's about the whole team. That's why we play together."
Around the rim
***Miles confirmed that freshman forward Nick Fuller has decided to redshirt this season. Miles said Fuller approached him with the idea, but he will continue to suit up like he did Monday just in case there's an emergency situation where Fuller needs to play.
***Nebraska shot just 59 percent (13-of-22) from the free throw line in the game, which is something Miles obviously wants to see improved going forward. Webster was the primary culprit for the poor percentage, as he was just 3-of-8 from the line while the rest of the team shot 10-of-14.
"It was Tai Webster's fault. It was," Miles joked, somewhat. "To me, free throws are mental toughness. It's a closed skill. It's just like hitting a golf ball. It's a mental thing of having to get the end result out of your mind, stick with the process, and that tells me how ready you are and how focused you are. It's not uncommon that a kid who played lights out Night One with the Big Show and then maybe struggles a little bit the next time. It'll be interesting for him, because it's not going to get easier."
***Pitchford again showed great range from beyond the arc, as he shot 3-of-6 from 3-point range in the win. Miles said Pitchford's perimeter shooting was certainly a great asset, but he wants to see better play in the paint from his 6-foot-10 forward.
"If you can't engage your opponent physically, you've got a real problem, and I didn't think Walter was engaging (6-8, 260-pound WIU center Michael Ochereobia)," Miles said. "We needed somebody who was going to do it, and Leslee did."
***For the second season in a row, Miles was met with a chorus of boos from the student section at the end of the game after calling off the dogs in the final seconds and keeping Nebraska below the 65-point mark, ending any hope of fans receiving free Runza sandwiches with their game ticket stubs.
"I just can't please the fans when it comes to Runzas," Miles joked. "This is what happens. This is just going to have to be something we're going to have to overcome. Reasonable minds can disagree."
***Tuesday night's win marked Miles' 300th career victory, and he was honored on the court for his milestone shortly after the game. As good as it felt to reach 300, Miles said his 200th win still ranked a bit higher. Why? Because it came against NU assistant Craig Smith back in 2006, when Miles was at North Dakota State and Smith was head coach at Mayville (N.D.) State.
"Two hundred was way better," Miles said. "That was a good one."