It would be hard for even the most enthusiastic basketball fan to have gotten much enjoyment out of watching Nebraska's 67-53 victory over Penn State on Saturday night, but as far as head coach Tim Miles is concerned, a win is always worth celebrating.
Despite a combined 51 fouls and 73 free throw attempts by both teams, the Huskers were able to control the entire second half and lead by as many as 18 points in a game that lasted well over two hours. The win gave NU just its third Big Ten Conference victory and completed a season sweep over the Nittany Lions, who dropped to 0-11 in league play.
Senior guard Dylan Talley led the way for Nebraska with 16 points and seven rebounds, as the Huskers shot a season-high 32-of-41 from the charity stripe on the night as a team. Penn State made just 14 field goals and shot 29.2 percent from the floor, with 23 of its 53 points coming from the line.
With the win, NU completed its first conference season sweep since 2008-09 over Colorado.
"They're all satisfying, but like I told the team, we're catching somebody," Miles said. "We're either going to catch Penn State by losing and move backwards, or we've got a chance to catch Northwestern, Illinois and Iowa (in the Big Ten standings). Two of those (teams) won in the last couple days, so if we truly want to catch them, we've got two games against Iowa and one against Illinois, and you've got to win. You've got to find a way to win. I thought we did, and I thought that was important."
In a first half that saw 14 combined turnovers and 25 total fouls called, it's easy to see how free throws dictated the game's first 20 minutes. All together, Nebraska and Penn State shot 36 free throws while making 14 baskets from the field (including just five from PSU on 20 percent shooting).
The Nittany Lions had 16 of their 26 points in the first half come at the charity stripe, but their dismal shooting from the field (5-of-25) was enough for Nebraska to lead for all but five minutes of the half.
"When 70 percent of their shots are misses, 68 of ours, everything's a loose ball," Miles said. "That's hard to officiate. That's hard to play. Then players start driving it harder, every rebound's more highly contested. It's just an ugly game, and those are hard to ref. We've been in a few of those this year."
After jumping out to a quick 8-2 lead, the Huskers went six full minutes without a point and saw Penn State come back with a 13-3 run to take a 15-11 lead. After senior forward Brandon Ubel finally hit a jumper to snap the scoreless streak with 10 minutes left in the half, NU got going with a 18-4 burst to take its biggest lead yet at 29-19 with just under the four-minute mark.
It certainly didn't help Nebraska's cause that the Nittany Lions went 11 minutes without making a field goal during that run and scored just six points off free throws. Penn State ended up closing out the half on a 5-0 run to make it 33-26 going into halftime, but all the momentum still belonged to the Huskers - especially when junior guard Ray Gallegos swished a half-court shot well after the buzzer to get a loud cheer from the crowd.
The Huskers opened the second half 14-2 run right out of the gates and quickly jumped out to a 46-28 lead with 14 minutes remaining. Penn State was able to get it to within 12 after a lay-up by guard D.J. Newbill made it 52-40 with 6:45 to go, but that would be as close as the Nittany Lions would come the rest of the night. Counting from the end of the first half on through the first seven minutes of the second half, PSU made just one field goal over a full 20 minutes.
"It's definitely a different type of game," Ubel said, "but that's something that we've kind of struggled with, is getting to the free throw line, and the fact that we were able to get there so much tonight is a good sign. I think that just means we were attacking more, headed to the rim instead of being a little hesitant. That's I think a good sign for us going forward, but it was definitely a different pace to it."
Ubel finished with 14 points and nine rebounds and a career-high three blocks while shooting 8-of-13 from the free throw line, and Gallegos followed up 11 points on three-pointers. Newbill led Penn State with a game-high 17 points.
The competition will definitely get kicked up significantly when Nebraska returns to action on Wednesday night, as it travels to take on Indiana, who had been ranked No. 1 in the country going into this week.
For now, though, the Huskers will enjoy being on the right side of the scoreboard again, no matter how ugly it may have been to get there.
Besides, with 56 friends and family members from his hometown of Doland, S.D., in attendance, anything but a win would have been a total disaster for Miles.
"Of course Dolan was in the house tonight representing," Miles said. "So that's always an important night. That was awesome. I was completely surprised. They were all on Facebook talking about it apparently. I don't even know how that works.
"So when they walked in the gym when I was just leaving after shoot around, I got chills. It was so cool just seeing old friends and family and everybody like that. It was a lot of fun. Then I felt pressure. I was like, 'Oh, we've got to win. Holy cow.'"
Around the rim
***Penn State 29.2 percent shooting was the lowest by a Husker opponent this year. The previous low was 32.1 percent by Northwestern on Jan. 26.
***Nebraska picked up its ninth home win of the season, the 37th consecutive season finishing at or above .500 in the Devaney Center.
***The Huskers picked up their 12th win of the season, matching the entire season total from 2011-12.
***Nebraska's 67 points was its second-highest total in Big Ten play this season, trailing only the 68 scored at Penn State on Jan. 19.
***Nebraska out-rebounded PSU 40-39, the second straight game where the Huskers had out-rebounded an opponent.