As Nebraska senior point guard Bo Spencer sat down for his post-game press conference Wednesday night, he breathed a sigh of relief he'd been waiting two weeks to let go.
After four embarrassing losses to open their first ever run through the Big Ten Conference, the Huskers finally picked up their first conference victory of the season over Penn State, 70-58, in a game that could have all but slammed the door shut on the season.
It wasn't anything to write home about as far as style points go, but the only thing that mattered for Sadler's squad at the end of the night was finally getting a tally in the Big Ten win column.
"It feels like we got a big monkey off our back, and we finally got over that hump," Spencer said. "It's kind of tough to lose four straight and stay as confident as you would like. We still had players that had confidence, but it was kind of tough being on a losing streak. I think if we had any gone, we got it back tonight."
Nebraska looked like a completely different team in the first half than it had the past four games, as the Huskers used a couple of big scoring runs to eventually jump out to a 12-point halftime lead.
After trailing early through the first couple minutes, Nebraska took its first lead of the night on a 3-pointer by senior guard Toney McCray and then three straight free throws by Spencer to cap a 10-0 run and put NU up by seven.
The Nittany Lions certainly helped the Huskers' cause with a dismal offensive performance through the first 20 minutes. Penn State ended the half just 7-of-24 (29 percent) from the field and 1-of-11 (9 percent) from 3-point range.
Nebraska followed up its first scoring burst with another 8-0 run that increased its lead to 27-15 on a basket by McCray with just under six minutes left in the half. Penn State cut the lead back to down to single digits, but NU pushed the lead back up to 12 after junior guard Dylan Talley nailed a jumper with 53.1 seconds to go that made it 34-22 going into halftime.
Senior guard Caleb Walker scored nine of his 12 points in the first half along with five rebounds, as the Huskers shot 52.0 percent from the field as a team. Head coach Doc Sadler said the biggest reason for Nebraska's first-half success was due to the return of junior center Jorge Brian Diaz, who had five rebounds and three blocks in the game.
"I think the ball got inside 18 times tonight in the first half, and 13 good things happened - we were either fouled or made baskets," Sadler said. "Guys, you can't play this game without having a low-post presence. I don't care what kind of guards you've got. Our guys' confidence obviously has gone up, but that's not to say that all of our problems are fixed. I mean, you saw the last five six minutes. But there was a lot of pressure on those kids to get that one out of the way, and it was hard."
The momentum carried right on over into the second half for Nebraska, as a 13-4 run to open half put the Huskers up 47-29 after back-to-back 3s by Talley and Walker.
The Nittany Lions were at least able to keep it interesting with a 7-0 run of their own, aided by a four-minute scoring drought by NU, and brought the lead back down to 47-36 with 11:23 to play.
Nebraska was able to maintain that lead over the next five minutes, and then the Huskers completely took control of the game with one final scoring surge.
Highlighted by consecutive 3-pointers by Spencer and McCray, NU went on a 10-2 run that gave it its biggest lead of the night at 62-44 with 3:55 remaining in the game, and the Huskers never looked back from there.
"It was a tough game," Sadler said. "Penn State's tough. They play for 40 minutes. They don't give you anything. It was a good win. It was hard earned, which every game's going to be in this league."
When all was said and done, Nebraska had four players score in double figures in the win, led by 16 points from Spencer, who also added five assists. McCray ended the night with 13 points, while Talley added 12.
Penn State fell to 1-4 in Big Ten play with the loss, but it certainly was no fault of junior guard Tim Frazier, who scored a game-high 30 points on 10-of-16 shooting and provided the only consistence source of offense for the Nittany Lions all night.
While Nebraska shot 55 percent from the field in the game, Penn State couldn't buy a bucket all night, finishing 33.3 percent from the floor and 12.5 percent (3-of-24) from beyond the arc.
The Huskers' 70 points were not only 15 more than they had scored in any Big Ten game all season, but were the most since their 72-69 win over Central Michigan to close out the non-conference season. Their 55 percent shooting from the field was thei highest since shooting 57 percent against Rhode Island on Nov. 20..
With 13 more conference games left to play, Nebraska knows it still has a long way to go before it turns its ship completely around. Doing so, however, just got a lot easier with the monkey of that first ever Big Ten win finally off the Huskers' backs.
"Really I hadn't talked much about (the losing), but I'm sure that for the players it is (a relief)," Sadler said. "As you well know, they're getting asked about it by students, parents, girlfriends, everybody. As a coach, you understand. I mean, guys, it's an 18-game schedule.
"We haven't had the cleanest deck of cards, and I've loved this group, though. For four games, these guys have competed and played hard. We didn't win, but at no time during those four games have I gotten down on about it. But yeah, as somebody asked, was it a must-win? Sure it's a must-win. I think every game in this league is a must-win. So in that aspect, it was good to get it, no doubt."
Around the rim
***Nebraska has now shot 50 percent or better in its last two games for the first time this season.
***Penn State's 33-percent field goal percentage was the lowest by a Husker opponent since USC also shot 33 percent on Nov. 14
***Spencer went to the foul line a season-high 12 times against Penn State. His previous best was seven on two occasions, most recently against Central Michigan on Dec. 20. His 19 points were his highest total in Big Ten play.
***Walker had 12 points marked his fourth double-figure scoring effort of the season and highest total since scoring a career-high 17 points against Rhode Island
***McCray's 13 points gave him his seventh straight game in double figures.
***Even in the win, Nebraska still had trouble with its ball security. After turning it over 20 times in Saturday's loss to Illinois, the Huskers committed 17 turnovers against Penn State.
***Penn State guard Matt Glover, who was heavily recruited by Nebraska before it filled its 2011 recruiting class with Talley this summer, was held scoreless on 0-of-3 shooting with two rebounds.