Nebraska had spent the past three days talking about playing with focus and confidence when the competition reached the upper-level teams of the Big Ten Conference. After losing its previous three games to Ohio State by an average of nearly 30 points, Nebraska certainly did that when the No. 11 Buckeyes came to town on Saturday night.
While the effort and intensity were significantly better than in games like their 19-point loss at No. 23 Minnesota earlier in the week, the final result still ended with a 63-56 defeat for the Huskers.
After trailing by as much as 15 points midway through the second half, Nebraska (11-11 overall, 2-8 Big Ten) was able to chip away at the deficit and eventually pull within five with just under three minutes to go.
However, the Huskers couldn't make enough plays down the stretch to get any closer than that, as Ohio State (17-4, 7-2) kept them at bay at the free throw line through the final minutes.
"I thought our mentality was good," head coach Tim Miles said. "I thought our effort level was really good. Unfortunately it wasn't enough to come out on top. I thought we had some Jekyll and Hyde out there… Our margin of error is not where we can afford that. We don't score at a high enough rate, we don't create enough turnovers; we certainly don't get fouled to make up for some of those things."
Ohio State wasted no time getting things going and jumped out to a 12-3 lead to open the game, with rebounding once again being a major issue for the Huskers. The Buckeyes got four offensive rebounds and seven second-chance points in the first five minutes.
Nebraska eventually settled down and got its offense to heat up, coming right back with a 13-2 run of its own capped off by back-to-back lay-ups by freshman point guard Benny Parker to take its first lead at 16-14 with 8:44 left in the half.
After a 3-pointer by junior guard Ray Gallegos put the Huskers up 19-17 with six minutes to go, Ohio State exploded for a 13-0 run and led by as much as 11 before a tip-in by freshman forward Shavon Shields with 39 seconds remaining sent NU into halftime down 32-23.
Both teams shot 34 percent from the floor and Ohio State only ended up holding a 21-17 edge on the boards in the first half, but the biggest difference came off turnovers and at the free throw line.
The Buckeyes were a perfect 10-of-10 from the line while Nebraska didn't attempt a single free throw the entire half. The Huskers were called for seven fouls to just two on OSU, and Nebraska was also out-scored 10-0 on points off of turnovers.
Senior forward Brandon Ubel, who was held scoreless in the first half, scored six straight points to open the second half and got Nebraska back to five, but Ohio State continued to grind in the low post and eventually took its biggest lead of the night after a pair of free throws by point guard Aaron Craft to make it 53-38 with nine minutes left.
Just when it seemed like the Buckeyes had put the game out of reach, the Huskers made one last push with a 14-5 run beginning at the 8:43 mark and eventually got it 58-53 after a pair of free throws by sophomore forward David Rivers with 2:42 to play.
Rivers, who had just two points on one shot in the first half, accounted for six points and four rebounds during that stretch and finished with a team-high 13 points on the night.
"The first half for me was really slow, and sitting down on the bench just watching us, I was so excited for my team and wishing I could be out there making plays," Rivers said. "In the second half, Coach gave me the opportunity, and I tried to do the best that I could to make plays."
That would be as close as the Huskers would get, though, as Ohio State would go 5-of-6 from the charity stripe the rest of the way and NU would only score a 3 by Rivers with eight seconds remaining and the game already decided.
The Buckeyes made five fewer field goals (23-18) in the game but completely dominated the free throw line, going 23-of-28 to just 4-of-5 by Nebraska and hitting 13-of-18 in the second half alone.
Senior guard Dylan Talley had 12 points and Gallegos added 11 for the Huskers, while Lenzelle Smith put up a game-high 21 points on 6-of-6 shooting to lead OSU. Forward Deshaun Thomas, who came in as the Big Ten's leading scorer at 20.3 points per game, ended up with 15.
As frustrating as it was to once again come up just short of knocking off a ranked league foe, Miles said his team should still feel good about its overall effort, especially after the debacle in Minneapolis on Tuesday night.
"Certainly I think there should be, 'We can play with these guys, we can get over the top,'" Miles said. "I thought it was very close. I think we could've got it to three late if we'd just tip one in. Who knows what can happen? Big crowd, we get another stop and who knows what could happen? It wasn't meant to be, but we know how close we were to maybe making a play tonight."
However, as he's done after every loss this season, Miles refused to call Saturday's defeat a moral victory.
"What I would call it is a good learning experience to understand the mentality they need to play every night out," he said. "If we can capture that energy, if we can capture that lesson, then we can come out and maybe get over the top the next time."
Around the rim
***Miles jokingly invoked some Bo Pelini when asked about what his goals were for Nebraska's remaining eight regular season games.
"I want to win out," Miles said. "That was a joke. Get it? Didn't Bo say that?"
He of course was referring to Pelini's memorable claim that the Huskers had to win the their final six games following the blowout loss to, coincidentally, Ohio State in order to keep their season goals alive. Another coincidence: Ohio State scored 63 points in both of those games.
***Miles was asked about the huge disparity in free throws. He obviously didn't want to share his true feelings on the matter.
"You trying to get me fined here, or what are we doing? Reprimanded?" Miles joked. "No, that was a huge impact on the game. They're a very good team when they're on the attack and they do a good job not fouling. So you have to credit Ohio State."
***Senior center Andre Almeida came back to life a bit before getting into early foul trouble, scoring four points with eight rebounds and three blocks in 21 minutes off the bench. His rebounding, blocks and minute totals were all personal highs in Big Ten play.
"He was a savior," Miles said. "It was looking bleak early in the game, and I thought he came in and it was like a light switch came on for the entire team, and the whole entire momentum changed."
***In Nebraska's loss to Ohio State in the first meeting this season in Columbus, Ohio, the Buckeyes out-scored the Huskers 40-16 in points in the paint. On Saturday, NU won that category 30-26 with the help of 15 offensive rebounds and a 14-7 edge on second-chance points.
***Miles said in most cases Nebraska's 26 3-point attempts would be too many for a game, but considering where the Huskers are offensively right now, he was OK with the number.
"I saw that and was surprised we took that many," Miles said. "I mean, I thought our shot quality was OK. I thought it was pretty good. On a normal day I would say no, that's too many 3s because we only shot five foul shots. I know where we're at in terms of we're laying the foundation, and I thought we had decent looks. There's probably a handful of them I'd prefer to have back, but I can live with it. These guys really gave us a game effort tonight."
***The Huskers won't return to action again until next Saturday when they play host to Penn State, marking their longest break since the start of Big Ten play. Miles said the team would incorporate some new wrinkles on Monday and Tuesday, take Wednesday off and then return to their normal routine on Thursday and Friday. Miles also said he planned to go on the road recruiting during Wednesday's off day.