It was a game in which Nebraska wasn't supposed to stand a chance, but even after walking away with a 62-47 loss at No. 2 Michigan on Wednesday night, the Huskers couldn't help but still feel good about their performance.
Going in as a 22.5-point underdog against a Wolverine squad that was averaging 94.5 points in their first two Big Ten Conference games, the Huskers gave Michigan everything it could handle from the opening tip.
Michigan (16-0 overall, 3-0 Big Ten) never led by more than six points in the first half, and Nebraska (9-7, 0-3) came as close as five points with seven minutes left in the second half before the Wolverines eventually pulled away down the stretch. In the end, it was UM's 47-30 advantage on the glass for a 19-2 edge in second-chance points and its 26 free throw attempts to NU's seven in the game that were the biggest deciding factors.
"We played a really good team, one of the country's best, and I thought our kids as the game went on grew more confident and felt like 'Hey, we can do this. We can compete if we just do these things,'" head coach Tim Miles said during his post-game radio show on the Husker Sports Network. "It was just a couple things. Obviously we gave up way too many rebounds in the second half. We fouled too much too early, and we didn't make some of our easier shots. Those are the things that get you beat.
"It was too bad. You really struggle telling those guys in the locker room, 'Good job', because they don't want to hear it. That's what I like about them, is that they don't want to define themselves this way. They want to win this game. Like I said, we'll just dust ourselves off, get up, and let's figure out how to do it against Michigan State."
Miles couldn't have drawn up a much better start to the game than how the first half played out, especially on the defensive end. While the Huskers continued to struggle to put points on the board, they were able to work the clock and keep the potent Wolverines in check for nearly all of the first 20 minutes.
Michigan, which came into the game shooting better than 50 percent from 3-point range in league play, shot just 1-of-10 from beyond the arc in the first half. Nebraska didn't exactly help its cause by getting out-rebounded 26-16, including giving up six offensive rebounds for nine second-chance points, but it made enough plays on the offensive end to keep the game within reach.
The Huskers actually led three times in the first half, including a 12-11 advantage on a basket by senior forward Brandon Ubel with 12 minutes left in the half. Michigan looked like it was going to go on one of its patented scoring runs when it broke away with a 7-0 spurt, but a pair of 3s by senior guard Dylan Talley and junior guard Ray Gallegos cut the deficit to 18-15 with just over five minutes to go.
Freshman Shavon Shields, who had six points and five rebounds in the first half, made a lay-up to make it a 21-20 Michigan lead with four minutes left, but the Huskers would go scoreless the rest of the half and the Wolverines would add a couple more jumpers to go into halftime with a 25-20 advantage.
Michigan quickly shot out of the gates in the second half and took its biggest lead yet at 39-30 on a jumper by sophomore point guard Trey Burke. Three minutes later, the Wolverines got their first big momentum play of the night when freshman Nik Stauskas nailed a 3 following a scramble for a loose ball to make it 43-34 with 11:30 to play.
A few minutes later, freshman forward Glenn Robinson III threw down consecutive highlight-reel dunks, one on a steal and fast break and another on a two-handed put-back slam. That helped spark Michigan to its first double-digit lead of the night at 53-42 with 4:39 to go.
Nebraska made one last push with just over two minutes left after a nice And-1 play by Gallegos that cut the deficit 55-47, but two missed shots on one possession the next time down court quickly put an end to the late rally.
"It was a tough one," Miles said, "because even late with four or five minutes left I thought we could make a charge and win the game."
Gallegos ended the night with a game-high 19 points, while Talley followed up with 12 for the Huskers. Four of Michigan's starters scored in double figures, led by 18 from Burke. With the win, the Wolverines tied their best start in school history.
For Nebraska, it was hard to get overly excited about a 15-point loss, but with the way the Huskers stuck with one of the best teams in college basketball for a full 40 minutes, Miles said his team finally got see what could happen when they fully buy into his philosophy.
"We have to dedicate ourselves to it," Miles said. "We just have to unconditionally accept this is the way it's going to take to win this game. I think we're getting closer to that. We're getting closer to that. I was proud of the kids tonight with their effort. I think they put themselves in a lot of positions to win, and we know what we have to do to be able to get over the top."
Around the rim
***Nebraska shot 26 3-pointers in the loss, only making six (23.1 percent). With the Huskers' offensive struggles of late, though, Miles said he was OK with that many 3s because it was one of the only ways NU could score at this point.
"We took a lot of 3s tonight, but I'm fine with that because we need to generate offense," Miles said.
***Senior center Andre Almeida, who sat out of Sunday's loss to Wisconsin with an ankle injury, came off the bench and picked up two rebounds, a block and a foul in 10 minutes of playing time. Miles said in retrospect he should have given Almeida more minutes, especially with only seven Huskers seeing the court against Michigan.
"Andre probably should have played more tonight," Miles said. "We were talking about it as a staff afterwards, and I said, 'Gosh, we only played Andre 10 minutes, huh?' You don't realize it until it jumps out at you. Each coach is like, 'You could've played him more. I understand why you didn't, but you could've.' I think he could've helped us. I probably should have played him more, but at the time I was going with my gut."
***Nebraska was just 3-of-7 from the free throw line, including 1-of-4 in the second half. On the other side, Michigan was 17-of-26 from the charity stripe.
"It's hard to compare them to us, because we just don't get fouled," Miles said. "We are not on the attack and that way we don't get breakdowns going. Sometimes when you go on the road, that happens, and that's part of life. You've got to overcome that. We could've if we would have done our end."