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Aesthetically speaking, Nebraska's 60-49 win over Miami on Wednesday night left much to be desired. Fortunately for the Huskers, the only thing that mattered in the end was the final score.
In a game built as the biggest non-conference home contest on the schedule next to maybe the season-opener against Florida Gulf Coast, Nebraska overcame a rough shooting night with some of its best team defense of the year to knock off a Hurricane squad that was a No. 2 seed in last season's NCAA Tournament. One of the final games of the annual Big Ten/ACC Challenge, the Huskers' victory helped the Big Ten come out with a 6-6 tie in the two-day event.
"It was a good win for us," head coach Tim Miles said. "I think we saved the Big Ten's bacon, right? So we ended up hanging in there with that, and that was important for us. We wanted to be part of that. Last year I don't think anybody picked us to beat Wake (Forest) and we were able to do that. We like being part of this challenge. It means something to our program."
A 3-pointer by sophomore forward Walter Pitchford just 11 seconds into the game sparked an 8-2 run for Nebraska to open the game, but that hot start would be a bit deceiving with how the offenses from both teams would play out the rest of the half. The Huskers and Hurricanes shot a combined 7-of-25 from the field through the first 10 minutes and neither was better than 30 percent from the field.
Miami eventually came back to tie it at 11 on a 7-1 run of its own, but NU would close the half with a 10-2 rally capped off by back-to-back 3s by senior guard Ray Gallegos to give NU its biggest lead yet at 22-13, which would hold into halftime. Neither team would score in the final two minutes of the half, and the Hurricanes managed just one made field goal in the last nine minutes. When all was said and done, UM ended the first half shooting just 24 percent from the floor and 8.3 percent (1-of-12) from beyond the arc, while the Huskers weren't much better at 32 percent from the field.
"We guarded the ball well, and we handled their screen-and-roll stuff well, so then they were taking outside shots," Miles said. "They're not a great outside shooting team, and they started out one of their first 15 or something like that - you knew that was going to change. At the end of the day, I just felt we really did a good job getting the ball under control, so it was like one outside contested shot then we rebounded alright. We hung with them on the glass, and we actually out-rebounded them (35-34), which is a good sign for us."
Once again, Nebraska came out of the gates hot and jumped out to a 32-20 lead with 14 minutes left after a 3-pointer and then a lay-up by sophomore wing Terran Petteway. A bucket by sophomore forward Shavon Shields a couple minutes later would give the Huskers their biggest lead of the night at 36-20, and it looked like the game was well in hand. That was before Miami's offense came out of nowhere and reeled off three straight 3-pointers to spark an 11-0 run to suddenly cut the lead to 36-31 with just under eight minutes to play.
"They came storming back," Miles said, "which, you know, puts the blood pressure way up there."
Luckily for Nebraska, Pitchford was there to come to the rescue, as he hit a 3, took a charge, made two free throws and hauled in a rebound all in one sequence to help put NU back up by 10.
"Just the way these guys made 3s, they were going to come back on anybody," Miles said. "I didn't think we made that many errors compared to the way we got careless against Northern Illinois. I just think they made some plays."
A 3-pointer by Rion Brown made it 43-36 with 4:35 to go, but the Huskers took control from there with a 10-3 run to go back up by 12 with less than two minutes remaining. The highlight of the game came during that NU rally, as freshman point guard Tai Webster came up with a steal, fired off an outlet pass to Shields while falling backwards, and Shields took it to the house with a big one-handed dunk to get the crowd off of its feet.
Miami was able to chip away some at the lead in the final minute with some 3-pointers and free throws, but the Huskers did their job at line down the stretch to keep the Hurricanes at bay the rest of the way and preserve the victory.
Petteway led Nebraska with a team-high 14 points and three blocks, while Pitchford followed up with 13 points on 3-of-6 shooting from behind the arc. Junior power forward Leslee Smith had another big night off the bench, as he finished with seven points and a game-high 10 rebounds in 23 minutes of action. Brown led all scorers with 25 points for Miami, with 23 of those coming in the second half, but the Hurricanes shot just 31 percent from the field as a team.
"You know, they really have some big guys and good players," Smith said. "One thing that Coach always tells us is to not give them angles. Don't give them easy shots. Make it hard for them. So I think they were surprised and that we took them out of their game. We made them do other things."
With the win, Nebraska improved to 6-2 on the season, but a much bigger challenge lies ahead on Sunday when the Huskers travel up the road to Omaha to take on in-state rival Creighton. Knowing NU doesn't have much time to sit back and celebrate it's victory over Miami, Miles made sure to put the game into proper perspective when asked what it meant to the program.
"It means we get to play Creighton on Sunday," Miles said. "Otherwise I might not let them (had NU lost)."
Around the rim
***Nebraska improved to 2-1 all-time in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge with both wins coming under Miles.
***Nebraska improved to 5-0 at home this year and has now won seven straight home games dating back to last season, marking its longest home winning streak since getting 14 in a row in 2010-11.
***The Huskers are also now 5-0 in games on ESPNU under Miles.
***With just 49 points, Miami's became the second opponent NU has held under 50 this year. Of course, the Huskers' 60 points in the win were also a season low.
***Gallegos's two 3-pointers raised his career total to 118, which now ranks 10th on Nebraska's all-time career chart.
***Though he scored just five points, Webster set season highs in both assists (5) and steals (4) in the win.
***Smith has now hauled in 10 or more rebounds three times this season. He also had two blocked shots, marking the fourth game this year with multiple blocks.