It took far more drama than Tim Miles would have liked, but in the end his Nebraska squad made enough plays when it counted to pull off a huge non-conference victory over Valparaiso, 50-48, on Thursday night.
After leading by as much as 14 early in the second half, the Huskers saw their lead shrink down to as little as two points in the final minute, primarily because of a seven-minute scoring drought by NU that lasted until less than 15 seconds remaining on the clock.
Center Andre Almeida missed the front end of a one-and-one chance at the free throw line that could have iced the game with just 1.5 seconds left, but a prayer three-quarter court heave by the Crusaders' Matt Kenney never had a chance, and the Huskers walked away with an solid win.
"You ever want to create dry mouth for yourself, just get up two with (Valparaiso head coach) Bryce Drew on the other bench with about two or three seconds left and see what that does to you physically," head coach Tim Miles said, referring to Drew's legendary buzzer-beater as a player for Valpo in the 1998 NCAA Tournament.
"Good win. I thought our kids defended, we took away 3s, and we had just enough offense to be OK."
Despite 3-point defense being one of Nebraska's biggest weaknesses coming into the game, the Huskers completely shut down Valparaiso's perimeter offense throughout the game. A Crusader team that had shot 13-of-24 from beyond the arc in each of their first two games this season was just 1-of-6 in the first half and ended the night a dismal 2-of-15.
"That was the key to the game coming in, was getting back in transition, finding their shooters and contesting their shots," said senior forward Brandon Ubel, who led NU with 17 points. "Watching the tape, they ran a lot of good plays, but most of their stuff came off of transition and kind of off confusion-type plays where they're just getting wide-open looks at the basket. Good players are going to knock that down, so we were able to take that away from them tonight."
Despite being able to keep Valpo's scoring in check, Nebraska found itself down 19-16 with 7:45 to go in the first half. That's when Ubel and senior guard Ray Gallegos stepped up, scoring nine straight points between them to take their first lead in more than 10 minutes and go up 25-19 after a 3 by Gallegos with 3:07 to go.
The Huskers would hold the lead on into halftime, going up by as much as seven before settling for a 28-22 advantage at the end of the first half.
The second half couldn't have started much better for NU, as it quickly used a 10-0 run to push its lead up to 40-26 on a bucket by freshman point guard Benny Parker with just under 15 minutes left.
"I thought there was a spark on the team (at halftime) that I probably hadn't seen before," Miles said. "Like I told them after the game, we won the exhibition game, and the locker room was just kind of blah. We beat Southern and the locker room was just kind of blah. Tonight, I said 'How are you feeling?' And they were all charged up. I said 'This is how you're supposed to feel.' It's not just about winning, either. I felt we played alright. We have a lot to get better at, but that was a good win."
Over the following 14 minutes, however, Nebraska's offense went cold and Valparaiso was slowly able to chip away at the lead and cut it to 48-46 with 17.6 seconds to go on a pair of free throws by 2011 Horizon League Player of the Year Ryan Broekhoff that capped off a 9-0 run by the Crusaders
The Huskers certainly didn't help their cause, either, going a full seven minutes without a single point during Valpo's comeback.
"I think they switched into a zone, and that kind of threw us off a little bit and got us out of whack for a second," Ubel said. "We started settling for jump shots, and then we started to kind of attack the rim a little more and we got a couple baskets."
Finally, with 14.3 seconds remaining, Ubel ended the scoring drought with the two biggest free throws of the game to increase the lead back up to two possessions at 50-46. A 3 by Broekhoff on the Crusaders' ensuing possession was off the mark, but Kevin Van Wijk grabbed the rebound and was fouled with 3.3 seconds.
Van Wijk, who led Valpo with a game-high 20 points, knocked down both free throws to cut it to two. Nebraska heaved the ball down court on the inbounds pass to Almeida, who was barely fouled before getting a pass off with 1.5 seconds remaining. He missed his first free throw, but luckily for NU the clock hit zeros with its lead still intact.
Gallegos finished with 14 points, while David Rivers and Parker both added seven points each.
With the win, the Huskers improve to 2-0 on the year, and a once meek looking season was suddenly given a glimmer of hope - if only for another week. Nebraska will return to action on Sunday for its second game of the inaugural Joe Cipriano Classic when it hosts Nebraska-Omaha at 2 p.m.
"I think that our guys were unsure going in," Miles said. "The mood in practice was a little odd because we had some guys sick and some different things, but we kind of felt like a team that was unsure. At halftime, they didn't feel like a team that was unsure, and I didn't think they played like a team that was unsure. I thought they were aggressive and did a lot of good things.
"We'll watch the tape tomorrow and we'll get better, because you know Omaha's coming in here and this is a big game for them and it's a big game for us. Every one counts as one."
***Miles said he was pleased with the way Rivers played coming off the bench. The Sophomore guard also had four rebounds and two blocks to go along with his seven points.
"I thought David was real solid," Miles said. "I thought he had a really solid night. I thought he was valuable to us. There's still some growing pains in there, but I think he'll get better."
***Miles also liked the way Parker performed on both ends of the court, especially on defense. Parker had three assists and committed just one turnover, and held Valpo point guard Erik Buggs to just three points and no assists.
"I thought Benny did a nice job," Miles said. "He got in foul trouble early. That Buggs kid is a good driver, and I thought we were physical with him, and I don't think he liked that a whole bunch."
***Ubel said Nebraska knew it would have an advantage with its size in the low post, and they came into the game determined to get the ball down low to him and Almeida as much as possible.
"We definitely had that advantage, and I think they knew that coming into the game that we were a little bit bigger and stronger," Ubel said. "So they were throwing double teams at us trying to take that away, but we found a way to get past that and found a way to move without the ball and get through those double teams and were able to finish."
***From a confidence standpoint, Ubel said a win like this was invaluable for a young team that hadn't experienced winning big games much the past couple seasons.
"It's huge, especially for as young of a team and inexperienced of a team as we are," Ubel said. "To get this kind of win, where kind of gutted it out at the end of the game, it's huge for us."
***Valparaiso was shooting 52.5 percent and averaging 77.0 points per game as a team entering tonight's contest. The Crusaders ended up shooting 34 percent from the field with just 48 points, marking their lowest scoring output in 29 games.