Nebraska knew it was going to get its biggest physical challenge of the season Wednesday night against Tulane, and it got everything it could have expected for a full 40 minutes.
After leading for nearly all the first half, the Huskers saw their lead quickly erased in the second half and eventually trailed by three with seven minutes remaining in the game. With solid defense and some timely baskets down the stretch, though, Nebraska was able to hold on for its fourth win in a row, 61-57.
The win gives NU its first 4-0 start since the 2008-09 season.
Despite being out-rebounded 33-26 and shooting just 57.9 percent (11-of-19) from the free throw line, the Huskers (4-0) came up with clutch rebounds, free throws and defensive stops in the final minute to remain perfect on the season.
"I know as a coaching staff we're enjoying this win a whole bunch," head coach Tim Miles said. "This is definitely one I think our guys should feel great about winning. It was one of those that could go either way. We knew it, and we found a way to come out on top."
Nebraska led for all but the first two minutes in the first half, but the Huskers never had full control early on. After taking a 22-13 lead on a 3-pointer by junior walk-on Mike Peltz with 10 minutes left in the half, Tulane (3-2) came storming back with a 12-5 run to cut it to 27-25 six minutes later.
A pair of 3s by senior guards Dylan Talley and Ray Gallegos were able to keep the Green Wave at bay, as NU took a 33-28 lead into halftime. Had it not been for the Huskers shooting 7-of-10 from beyond the arc to just 2-of-5 by Tulane, the score might not have been as generous.
"We didn't play our best game by any means," Talley said. "We were out rebounded by a tough team. They were tough on the boards all night, but we still found a way to come out with the win. We toughed it out. I'm proud of our team and just happy we got the win."
As expected, Tulane's aggressive and physical play inside was a problem for Nebraska early on. Led by 10 points and eight rebounds by junior forward Josh Davis - a transfer from North Carolina State - the Green Wave out-rebounded the Huskers 19-12, including a 5-1 edge on the offensive glass, and out-scored NU 9-0 in second-chance points.
Tulane eventually took its first lead since the 18-minute mark in the first half on a basket by guard Jordan Callahan with 16:17 remaining to cap off an 8-0 run.
"I was thinking the same thing everyone was (at that point) - are we just going to hang our heads and go away? Or are we going to find a way to make plays to win this game?" Miles said. "I was proud that we found a way to win the game."
The lead would then change hands eight more times over the next 11 minutes until senior center Andre Almeida kissed a bank shot off the glass to put NU up 56-55 with just under five minutes to go.
A pair of free throws by Davis tied it back up at 57-57 with 2:05 remaining, but Nebraska quickly reclaimed the lead on a dunk by Almeida off of a nice drive and dish by Talley.
"That is something I have been working on," Almeida said of stepping up his offense. "Coach Miles has been telling me that if you get wide open, just shoot the ball."
The Green Wave had a chance to take the lead when Callahan was fouled on a 3-pointer with 1:06 to play, but he missed all three of his free throws to come away empty handed. Talley missed a tough lay-up on the other end with 30 seconds left, but the Huskers got a key defensive stop and Talley came down with the rebound.
However, Talley was called for traveling after falling during the rebound, giving Tulane the ball back with 20 seconds to go. Nebraska's defense came up big again, though, forcing a Callahan miss and then getting the ball back after - somewhat ironically - Davis was called for traveling on the offensive rebound with 4.1 on the clock.
Gallegos was fouled with 3.5 seconds on the ensuing inbounds pass. Even though NU was just 9-of-17 from the line at that point in the game, he came up huge and knocked down both of his free throws to seal the win. When all was said and done, Nebraska held Tulane without a field goal and just two points for the final seven minutes of the game.
"Tulane did a great job in the second half," Miles said. "They got off to a slow start, but didn't let us get away from them. Then in the second half, they really controlled the first 12 minutes of the second half. But I thought we buckled down at the end and played gritty defense and made enough hustle plays to hang in there."
Talley and Gallegos both led the way with a team-high 14 points, while Almeida followed up with 10 points, six rebounds and a season-high four blocks despite getting into early foul trouble. Davis led Tulane with 19 points and 13 rebounds, while Callahan finished with 16 points, 13 of which coming in the second half.
None of Nebraska's first four games have been cakewalks by any means, but the Huskers have managed to find ways to get the job done in all of them. They return to action on Saturday at home against Kent State at 8 p.m. CT, but the non-conference schedule picks up in difficulty quite a bit from there.
Starting next Tuesday, the Huskers play at Wake Forest, host Oregon and then Creighton, and then go on the road to Oregon over four-game stretch.
"I don't think it's going to change for a while, hopefully, and we just have to understand this is how we're going to play," Miles said. "It's going to be that way. Relax, and you've got to finish with a flourish. The way you do that is to concentrate on the fundamentals and the process, not to worry about the outcome. If we can do that, we'll be OK."
Around the rim
***Nebraska ended the night 10-of-19 from 3-point range, marking a season high for 3s made in a game. The Huskers had made a total of 11 3-pointers in their first three games.
***Freshman point guard Benny Parker dished out a career-high seven assists and had just one turnover in 31 minutes. The Huskers finished with a season-best 15 assists as a team.
***Freshman wing Shavon Shields made his Husker debut on Wednesday night after missing the first three games with an infection in his right elbow. His stat line wasn't exactly one for the books, however, as he finished with zero points on 0-of-1 shooting, one rebound, one assist, one turnover and four fouls.
***Tulane's 57 points were a season low. Its previous low was 61 against Georgia Tech in its season opener on Nov. 9.