It wasn't the prettiest, but the unofficial start of Nebraska's 2008-09 season ended in a victory nonetheless, as the Huskers cruised past Chadron State 85-54 Friday night at the Devaney Center.
In an exhibition game that didn't count toward their overall record, the Huskers overcame a slow offensive start behind aggressive defense and some big scoring runs late in the first half to put the clamps down on the Eagles.
Nebraska actually trailed by eight points through first seven minutes of the game, but responded with a 36-7 run before the end of the first half and never looked back.
Redshirt freshman Toney McCray led the way with 18 points off the bench in his first collegiate game, while true freshman Eshaunte Jones followed up with 16 in his Husker debut.
"I didn't think it was a slow start, I thought we just couldn't make any baskets," head coach Doc Sadler said. "I thought we were playing hard and we were getting good shots, so I didn't think it was a slow start at all. It just wasn't a good shooting start."
McCray and Jones were definitely the highlights of the night for NU, as they combined for 34 points in their first career games. McCray ended the night 6-of-8 from the field and 5-of-6 from the free-throw line, while Jones was 6-of-9 overall and hit a game-high two 3-pointers.
Both players said they were simply trying to do whatever they could to help the team, and obviously they were able to do that and then some on Friday.
"It felt good," McCray said. "I wanted to get my assignment down because I didn't want to shoot a bad shot. As long as it was a good shot, I was happy with it… I was just trying to score the ball when needed and just play hard for my teammates and my coach."
The night definitely started out with the feel of an exhibition contest for the Huskers, as they hit just three of their first 12 shots of the game and at one point trailed 10-2.
The drought didn't last too long, though, as a 3-pointer by Paul Velander sparked 20-2 run that gave Nebraska a 22-12 lead. Then, with 8:46 left in the first half Jones made his collegiate debut, and on his first-career shot drained a jumper from just inside the 3-point line to increase the lead to 12.
That was only the start of Jones' night, too. On the Huskers very next possession, Jones drained a 3 and then followed with four more consecutive points to put NU up 31-17. The Huskers would go on to score seven more unanswered points to go up 21, and eventually ended the half with a 51-26 advantage.
Jones ended his first half as a Husker 6-of-7 from the field and 2-of-3 from beyond the arc for 16 points in just 9 minutes on the floor. McCray also had 16 at the half, while senior Steve Harley had 13.
The second half started off with more of the same, as Nebraska never led by fewer than 29 points the rest of the game. The Huskers officially open their regular season on Sunday, Nov. 16 at home against San Jose State.
"I was pleased, pretty much," Sadler said. "Obviously we fouled too much, especially in the second half. We can't foul as much as we did. But overall I thought our half-court defense was good.
"We started the game not making many shots, but that's normal. That's normal. But I thought we were taking some good shots, and I do think this team is a decent shooting basketball team."
Jones has impressive debut
Coming into the season with reputation for being a natural scorer, Jones certainly didn't disappoint on Friday night.
With 16 points in his first game as a Husker, Jones showed why Sadler tabbed him as one of NU's best shooters during the offseason before he even played a game.
Jones started his career off with the bang, as he nailed the first two shots he took and then hit 2-of-3 free-throws after being fouled on a 3-point attempt on his third shot.
"I came in and I just wanted to go with the flow of the game," Jones said. "Then, for some reason Pauly (Velander), the real shooter on our team, said, 'Why don't you just start shooting the ball?' I just said, 'OK.' So I hit one shot, then the other one fell, then I hit another one, or at least I got fouled. I just started getting comfortable in the game as it went."
Sadler said he was happy with Jones' performance, but said the freshman needed to vastly improve his play defensively and without the basketball.
"I thought he made shots," Sadler said. "He got wide-open shots, and he can shoot the basketball. I thought he was a good offensive player. I don't know how good of a defensive game he played."
Jones admitted his game defensively wasn't the best he's ever played, and that he's not going to waste any time getting to work on fixing the problem.
"I think I did OK, but my guy got past me a couple of times, so I think I really need to get in and work a little harder on that," Jones said. "As a matter of fact, I'm going to start working on that tomorrow, as soon as we get in here tomorrow."
As for his injured foot/ankle, Jones it felt all right for most of the game, but started to flare up towards the end. He said all he plans to do is continue getting treatment in the training room and hoping it eventually begins to heal.
"It started to hurt towards the end," he said. "They just tell me to keep getting treatment, keep seeing RJ. Just keep doing what you've been doing, and just keep it day-to-day. Hopefully it gets better."
***Sadler said he was most discouraged by the Huskers inability to move the ball around effectively enough on offense. Chadron State apparently came out in a zone defense, and the Huskers were unable to work the ball around well enough to find holes in the zone and get to the basket.
Instead, Nebraska settled for 23 3-point shots, only connecting on eight of them.
"We shot 23 3's, that's probably too many 3's against a team like that," Sadler said. "I was disappointed with our ball movement offensively. I was really thinking that our ball movement would be much better than it was."
***Sadler said that despite the Huskers' slow start offensively, he was pleased with their defense against Chadron State. Earlier this week, the Eagles were able to put up 78 points on Colorado State.
On Friday, they were held to just 54, including only 26 in the first half.
"I thought we defended pretty good through the first 30 minutes," Sadler said. "This is a team that put 78 up against Colorado State, and we held them to what, 26 in the first half, I believe. That's not bad."