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Coming off a difficult run through the Charleston Classic last weekend and games with Miami and No. 20 Creighton looming next week, Nebraska found itself with all of the makings of a trap game when it hosted Northern Illinois on Saturday afternoon.
A sluggish start by NU followed by some early foul trouble and poor defense helped the Huskies, who won only five games last year, cut it to a one-point game with 8.3 seconds left to play. Though the Huskers were barely able to hold off the upset for a 63-58 victory, head coach Tim Miles said the win showed just how many issues his team had left to correct after the first month of the season.
"Those guys need to be in games like that," Miles said. "Loss aversion is a big deal. If you've ever read the book "Scorecasting", it's when you think you have the game won, you all of sudden take ownership of it and here they come, and you see performance change. Our guys need to understand that you have to stay on the attack, you have to stay aggressive, and you have to go out there and do your job."
Nebraska got off to another sluggish start to open the game and trailed by as many as six before finally taking its first lead of the day 10 minutes in on an And-1 conversion by point guard Deverell Biggs to make it 17-16. The Huskers would turn that into a 14-2 run and go up 24-18 after a basket by sophomore wing Terran Petteway and ensuing flagrant foul call on NIU.
The Huskers' lead would eventually grow to as much as nine on a huge dunk by sophomore forward Walter Pitchford, but a tip-in by the Huskies' Pete Rakocevic with 8.4 seconds left in the half sent NU into halftime with a 35-28 lead. Petteway led all scorers in the half with nine points, while junior power forward Leslee Smith provided a big lift off the bench with eight points on a perfect 4-of-4 shooting from the floor to go along with four rebounds.
"I think the problem was we weren't paying attention to the scouting report," Smith said. "We were letting their guys get into their comfort zones… We didn't finish the plays. They got some offensive rebounds which transitioned to easy buckets. That was a problem we couldn't handle right away."
While Nebraska couldn't seem to put Northern Illinois away for good, the Huskers were able to keep the Huskies within arms reach for the first 10 minutes of the second half. A pretty drive and lay-in by freshman point guard Tai Webster put NU up 48-35 with just over 17 minutes to go, but NIU would slowly chip away at the lead and pull to within 48-41 with nine minutes left after back-to-back baskets by forward Jordan Threloff.
That lead would dwindle down to 57-53 following a bucket by Rakocevic with 3:55 to go, and the nervous groans from the crowd of 11,358 started getting louder by the possession. The uneasiness reached its peak when Webster missed four straight free throws to allow NIU to cut it to 57-55 with just 1:18 remaining, but a put-back basket by Smith off of a Biggs miss pushed the lead back to 59-55 with just under a minute to play.
"I'm very disappointed we let them get back in the game because of the way we let them back in the game," Miles said. "I mean, we got careless. We were starting to worry about the highlight plays. We missed some free throws. We just had some turnovers that were uncharacteristic."
Northern Illinois missed a 3 on its next offensive possession, but the Huskers couldn't control the rebound and the ball went out of bounds back to the Huskies with 14.7 left. Coming out of a timeout, NIU's Dontel Highsmith made a 3-pointer that bounced off the rim then off the backboard before going through the net to make it 59-58 with just 8.3 seconds to go. Biggs was fouled immediately on the in-bounds pass, and he delivered at the line with a pair of free throws to make it a thee-point game.
The Huskies missed another 3-pointer, and Biggs came down with the rebound and was fouled with just 0.3 remaining. Biggs once again hit both of his free throws to seal the five-point victory.
"I'm glad they didn't make it," Miles said of NIU's final shot. "That game needed to end."
Biggs ended the day with a team-high 18 points, while Smith had 13 points and nine rebounds off the bench. Petteway added 12 points for the Huskers, and Threloff led Northern Illinois with 18 points.
With the win, Nebraska improves to 5-2 on the year heading into one of the biggest weeks of the non-conference season next week. Miami is set to come to town on Wednesday night in a nationally-televised showdown on ESPNU, and then the Huskers travel up the road to take on Creighton next Sunday, which will be shown on FOX Sports 1.
"I would have liked to play better and be ready for next week, but this is just the state we're in," Miles said. "We're a team that's going to learn, slow but sure. I'm glad we hung on to win the game. I was disappointed we didn't finish the game out. We've just got to get everybody on the same page. We're not, but we need to get there sooner than later, because it's a huge week."
Around the rim
***Nebraska played in foul trouble for much of the game once again on Saturday, as the Huskers racked up 22 fouls that resulted in 28 free-throw attempts for Northern Illinois. Sophomore Shavon Shields fouled out with eight minutes left in the game, and Smith played much of the second half with four fouls.
"We've got to have those guys in the game," Miles said. "We have to be able to play hard and play well without fouling. We didn't do that. Shavon was essentially a non-factor because he was either with fouls every time or out of the game. I put him back in early because I trust him. He fouled out four seconds after that. That was a mistake on my part, of course, but I just trust that kid."
***Miles said Biggs was the difference maker for Nebraska in the win, as his play off the bench gave the Huskers exactly the offensive spark they needed. Miles said Biggs still needed to clean up his play on the other end of the floor before he could work his way into the starting lineup.
"Deverell's biggest issue is defensive discipline," Mile said. "He'll just kind of go on his own page, and you can't have that. That's why he is where he is. Offensively he really brings a lot to the table, but we've got to get him locked in defensively."
***Miles said he wasn't too worried about Webster, who had just four points and was 0-of-6 from the free-throw line.
"We've got to get Tai Webster locked in on both ends, too," Miles said. "I didn't think he played a very good game today. I think he'll be better, but that's freshman growing pains. You've got a week off of school, and you just kind of get in that mind frame - that laissez faire thing - but I think he'll be better."
***Miles said he wasn't surprised with the production Smith gave off the bench, as he's been providing a spark as a sub most of the season. Smith said he actually met with Miles before heading out to las week's Charleston Classic and told him he preferred coming off the bench and giving the team a lift inside.
"Me and Coach Miles had a meeting before we took the trip to Charleston, and I told him I really like coming off the bench," Smith said. "We don't really have a lot of bigs that can come in and have an impact on the game, so I told him I don't mind coming off the bench, being an energy guy, getting rebounds and scoring a little bit. I just want to play that role."