Even though it was nearly marred by some questionable officiating in the final seconds, Nebraska was finally able to experience the sweet taste of victory again with a 68-64 win over Penn State on Saturday.
With NU holding onto a six-point lead in the final minute of the game, the Nittany Lions hit a 3-pointer with 32 seconds left, stole the ensuing inbounds pass and then were awarded two free throws when Jermaine Marshall was fouled with 24.6 remaining.
Before Marshall went the line, though, the officials went to the replay monitor to review whether Nebraska's Brandon Ubel had thrown an elbow prior to the turnover. The refs ruled that he did and hit him with a flagrant foul, giving PSU Marshall's two free throws and then two more for Ross Travis.
What could have been a disastrous turn of events for the Huskers ended up working out in the end, though, as Penn State missed five of its final six free throws and Ubel hit a pair of his own from the charity stripe to seal the victory. The win was Nebraska's first in Big Ten play this season and snapped a five-game losing streak.
"It was a great win for the Huskers," head coach Tim Miles said during his post-game radio show on the Husker Sports Network. "I thought the guys did a lot of things. We played pretty well for a while. We got punched in the face for a while. We had a lead, gave up a lead, had a lead, gave up a lead. In the end, we were fortunate because they missed free throws. I've got my own opinion on what all went down, but at the same time, it was just one of those - I've never seen it before in my life."
True freshman Shavon Shields led the Huskers with the best game of his young career, scoring a game- and career-high 29 points on 10-of-11 shooting from the floor and 8-of-8 from the free-throw line. Junior Ray Gallegos finally got his shot back on track as well, adding 15 points with three 3-pointers.
Through the first six minutes of the game, though, it looked as if Nebraska was in store for yet another putrid day offensively. The Huskers missed their first 10 shots from the field to open the day and didn't score their first points until a pair of free throws by senior Dylan Talley nearly six minutes into the half.
Penn State was able to build up a 7-0 lead to start the game, but after Shields made NU's first field goal with 14 minutes remaining, the Huskers suddenly caught fire with a 10-0 run to give them the lead with 12 minutes left.
A pair of 3-pointers by Gallegos and then another trey from Shields kept the hot shooting going, and a nice steal and dish from freshman Benny Parker for a Gallegos lay-up gave Nebraska its biggest lead of the half at 27-17 with 3:27 to go.
In the final seconds of the half, Gallegos found Shields wide open under the basket for a lay in, but PSU guard Kevin Montminy hit a desperation 3 at the buzzer to cut the lead to 33-28 going into halftime.
The Huskers out-shot Penn State 47 percent to 36 percent from the field, as Shields - who came in averaging just 6.2 points per game - led the way with 13 of his 29 points in the first half. His total was the most by an NU true freshman since Tyronn Lue had 30 in 1995-96.
"I've been practicing more and everything, and I haven't been hurt," Shields said. "The injury (before the season) kind of set me back, but I've been practicing and playing and getting more comfortable, and Coach is giving me confidence. We sat down and had a talk, and after that talk I feel like I've gotten better each game."
Nebraska quickly regained the momentum to start out the second half and went back up by 10 on a basket by Shields to make it 41-31 with 15 minutes to play. But once again, the Nittany Lions came storming back with a 12-0 burst that gave them a 43-41 lead four minutes later.
Penn State would go up by as much as four before the Huskers answered with an 11-0 run of their own to reclaim the lead at 59-52 with just over four minutes remaining in the game.
It looked as if NU was going to put the game away after a 3-pointer by Gallegos with two minutes left made it a 64-58 advantage, but the Nittany Lions clawed their way back and had a chance to take the lead in the final seconds with four straight free throw attempts.
Fortunately for Nebraska, PSU couldn't convert on the opportunity, as the Nittany Lions shot just 15-of-24 from the line in the loss. The Huskers, on the other hand, had their best free-throw shooting game of the season, going a perfect 16-of-16 from the line and falling just one shy of the school record for most consecutive made free throws without a miss in a game (17 vs. Oklahoma State on Jan. 31, 1979).
"You could see confidence waning at times, and they still found a way to bounce back," Miles said. "I didn't feel like I had to shepherd them through this thing, like I had to call a timeout and get them organized and make them feel better… I thought the guys did a good job, I really did."
Nebraska shot 47.1 percent (24-51) from the field, improving its record to a perfect 9-0 this season when shooting better than 40 percent as a team. Marshall led Penn State with 18 points, all of which coming in the second half.
Now finally having some momentum on their side, the Huskers won't have much time to celebrate, as No. 23 Illinois comes to town on Tuesday night. For the time being, though, Miles said he wanted his squad to enjoy being on the right side of the scoreboard again.
"We had a group hug," Miles said of the locker room celebration after the game. "It was just one of those things where the guys were happy. They were just genuinely happy. Sometimes you get a win, and you're not sure how you're going to get it, and today was certainly one of those days. We answered a lot of questions. We didn't fold. We kept fighting back and grinded out a win."
Around the rim
***Ubel returned after missing the past two games with an elbow injury and had 12 points, six rebounds, three assists and two blocked shots in 31 minutes.
"Brandon was Brandon," Miles said. "The fact that anybody would even consider that we're better off without him is nuts. He goes in, he plays 31 minutes, he has 12 points, he has three assists, blocks two shots - one right at the end of the game that probably saves the game."
***Shields' 29 points were also the most by any Husker this season. Talley had the previous high of 27 against Kent State on Nov. 24.
***Talley also had a career-high six assists in the win. His previous season and career high was five.
***When Gallegos came out of the game with 11:17 left in the first half, it marked the first time in six Big Ten games he had not played all 40 minutes. It ended a streak of 218:39 consecutive minutes dating back to Dec. 29.
***Parker had zero points in 18 minutes, but Miles said he was very happy with the defensive spark he provided off the bench.
"Benny Parker did a great job, especially defensively late in the game," Miles said. "I thought Benny was awesome."
***Nebraska will take Sunday off and return to practice on Monday. After Tuesday's game against Illinois, the Huskers will take Wednesday off and practice Thursday and Friday before taking on Northwestern on Saturday for their fourth game in nine days.