Nebraska's fourth game in the past 13 days against South Dakota State was supposed to be one of the easier contests of a brutal non-conference stretch, but the Jackrabbits gave the Huskers everything they could handle on Saturday.
While Nebraska led for the majority of the day in a 76-64 win, SDSU would not go away quietly, hitting eight total 3-pointers to keep the game within reach throughout.
Senior point guard Bo Spencer led the Huskers with 18 points, eight assists and six rebounds, while junior forward Brandon Ubel followed up with 12 points and eight boards.
However, Griffan Callahan put on a show of his own by going 7-of-11 from 3-point range and finishing with a game-high 25 points. While he shot just 3-of-14 from the field, guard Nate Wolters went 13-of-14 from the free throw line and ended with 19 points for the Jackrabbits.
Coming into game, SDSU's only two losses on the year came at Minnesota and at Georgia in a span of just three days.
"The way South Dakota State plays, they're just not going to make you look good," head coach Doc Sadler said. "But statistically if you look at what we did, I thought we did a nice job… The thing I was probably disappointed in was the energy that it looked like we had. The energy that the team had, the energy that the crowd had, I think a lot of things go into that.
"Sometimes because of the energy of the crowd you might walk out thinking you played better than you actually did. Tonight I think it's just the opposite. I think when we sit down and look at it, especially the way that they play, maybe we won't feel like you probably played as bad."
It was a slow day from the opening tip for Nebraska, as it made just one field goal in a span of nearly six minutes and found itself trailing 9-7 with 14:36 left in the first half.
Nebraska quickly reclaimed the lead, but didn't get up by more than four points until senior guard Toney McCray hit a 3 with just over two minutes left to spark an 11-4 run to close out the half.
While the Huskers took a 35-28 lead into halftime, they shot 48.3 percent from the field and didn't lead by more than five points until the final minute of the half.
It wouldn't take long for the Jackrabbits to come and put the pressure right back on, either.
After the Huskers went up by their largest lead to that point at on a 3-pointer by McCray by to make it 47-35, they would end up scoring just one more field goal in the next seven minutes to let SDSU claw back into the game and cut the lead to 50-45 on a 3 by Callahan with 9:31 remaining.
Nebraska responded with a 10-2 run that made it 60-49 with just under six minutes to go, and then took its biggest lead of game on a jumper by McCray that bumped it up to 66-53 with four minutes left.
The Huskers were able to keep the Jackrabbits at bay the rest of way, as their lead never dipped below 10 points.
"We weren't frustrated," McCray said. "Coming into the game, we knew they were a good team. Coach had been preaching to us the whole time we've been preparing for this team that they were good and it wasn't going to be a blow out. We know that their previous games hadn't been a blow out and they were doing well against good teams. We didn't think we were going to blow them out or anything."
McCray, who played just eight minutes in Wednesday's loss to Oregon, scored 12 points with six rebounds in 24 minutes on the court. Junior guard Dylan Talley added 12 points for the Huskers, as they shot 49.1 percent from the floor as a team and out-scored SDSU 36-22 in the paint.
Nebraska's road won't get any easier from here. The Huskers will play host to Wake Forest on Wednesday night in its first ever game in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. Tip-off is set for 8:15 p.m. CT.
As NU approaches the end of one of their toughest non-conference schedule grinds in recent memory, Sadler said his team was feeling some of the effects of playing so many tough games in such a short amount of time.
"It's been hard on the players," Sadler said. "It's been hard on everybody, and it's not over with. We've still got the next four games, which are just grinds. Unless you were in one of the preseason tournaments, I don't know anybody that had just a regular season grind in their season like this is going to be."
Around the rim
***Senior guard Caleb Walker played just 12 minutes on Saturday because he had been up all night with an illness. The team didn't even know if Walker would be able to play in the game, but he was able to gut it out to add a rebound and a steal.
***With Walker essentially out of the rotation, other Huskers had to step up and fill his minutes on the floor. While McCray saw quite of bit of playing time, freshman David Rivers came in and played 18 minutes off the bench in his most extensive action as a Husker. Rivers ended the day with eight points and five rebounds.
"Somebody had to step up and get those minutes," Sadler said. "So David did. We have complete confidence in David, but we haven't had a chance to play a lot of those guys. As I tell everybody, freshmen have to be patient. We've had tough games, every game has been tough. I know this, David does some really nice things, but he's got to continue to learn what we're trying to do."
***South Dakota State had averaged 35 free throw attempts per game in its previous three outings coming into Saturday's game, but shot just 18 against Nebraska.
***South Dakota State head coach Scott Nagy said he was just as impressed with Nebraska's bench players as he was with NU's starters, especially McCray. The Huskers' bench out-scored SDSU's 32-18 in the win.
"Quite frankly, McCray was their MVP," Nagy said. "He hit big shots when we got close. And he hit a big three in the first half. He played better offensively than we gave him credit for. It wasn't their stars that hurt; it was their bench that hurt us."