Whether it was misguided by the 6-1 start to the season or just overly optimistic, Nebraska came into Thursday night's in-state rivalry showdown with No. 16/13 Creighton holding a sincere belief that it had a chance to pull off the upset.
Those hopes were quickly brought back to reality, however, as the Huskers trailed for all but 20 seconds of the game in what ended in a 64-42 rout by the Bluejays.
In front of a packed Devaney Center crowd of 13,368, Nebraska (6-2) couldn't find any sort of consistency or tempo on offense and was unable to keep Creighton (8-1) down for much more than the first few minutes of the game.
Junior forward Doug McDermott was his usual dominant self for the Bluejays with 27 points, while center Gregory Echenique ended the night with 12 points and 12 rebounds. The Huskers, on the other hand, shot a season-low 32 percent (18-of-56) from field and were only 2-of-6 from the free throw line to CU's 10-of-18.
The loss snapped a three-game home winning streak in the series for Nebraska and gave Creighton its first win in Lincoln since 2004.
"It's a disappointing loss for Husker fans," NU head coach Tim Miles said. "We wanted to come out and compete and make it a game right down to the last possession and find a way to win, and we didn't. That's beyond disappointing to me. It's still a learning experience for this team, and we're going to go out and try and build our program to a point where we're on the other end of this outcome."
The Huskers were completely out of rhythm offensively in the first half, as they shot just 25 percent (7-of-28) from the field and 2-of-11 from 3-point range. Creighton wasn't much better (37 percent on field goals), but the Bluejays made enough plays in the final 10 minutes of the half to take a 28-17 lead into halftime.
Creighton's run started when Ethan Wragge nailed a 3 to silence the crowd after a quick 4-0 run by NU, and Echenique threw down back-to-back dunks to turn a two-point lead into a 21-12 advantage with 4:43 left.
The Bluejays would go on to end the half on a 14-5 run, including getting a gift with just two seconds left on a pair of free throws by McDermott, who was fouled on a rebound by point guard Mike Peltz. Despite giving up six inches and 25 pounds, the senior walk-on from Alliance, Neb., guarded the All-American McDermott for much of the half.
McDermott scored nine of his 27 points in the first half to lead the Bluejays, while the Huskers struggled with foul trouble from essentially the opening tip. Nebraska was called for 10 fouls in the half and had three players - Peltz, Andre Almeida and Ray Gallegos - all hit with two fouls.
"I thought Creighton did a really good job," Miles said. "I thought they didn't give us angles to attack the basket. We couldn't get fouled, and we couldn't get a rhythm. They did a nice job of taking Ray out of action."
The second half started off with a bang, and it wasn't just from Echenique's alley-oop dunk on the first possession.
With just under 18 minutes to go in the game, McDermott scored after a questionable no-call on an apparent traveling violation, and Miles was hit with a technical foul for arguing with the official.
"I thought that was very legitimate," Miles said about his reasons for arguing the call. "I still think I'm right. I still don't know. I'm going to have to check that one."
It would be all down hill from there for the Huskers. Creighton would go on to take its biggest lead of the night at 22 in the last two minutes, which ended up being the final margin.
The game didn't end without one last chippy exchange, however. With just over 12 minutes left, both teams got tangled up in fight for a loose ball that lasted well after the first whistle. The teams traded a little bumping and barking back and forth as the emotions of the game kind of came to a head, but no fouls were called as a result.
Senior guard Dylan Talley led the Huskers with 14 points but on just 5-of-16 shooting, while senior forward Brandon Ubel added 10 points and eight rebounds. Gallegos, who came in having scored 20 points in NU's past two games, was held to just five points on 2-of-8 shooting and 1-of-5 from beyond the arc.
Nebraska will get a few days to regroup before it heads out to take on Oregon and former Creighton coach Dana Altman on Saturday, Dec. 13, at 3:30 p.m. CT.
"It's tough," Almeida said. "It was on your home court. It's not any game, it's a state rival. But we can't get too low about a loss. We've got to move on. We can't let this game define us, and we won't. Tomorrow we'll come in ready to go to work and get better. It's tough, but now we've got to think about Oregon."
Around the rim
***Miles said he thought the Huskers reverted back to some of their old bad habits when the game started getting away from them, especially offensively.
"There's no doubt there were some certain old habits," Miles said. "I was taking guys out - you know, you have teachable moments, and you're just like, 'Sub, sub.' You don't like to do that, but emotions run high, and guys kind of lose their wits a bit. You could see that. Our new guys played like new guys. Anybody that was new to the program was like, 'Holy cow, look at all the people here. This must be a big game.' None of those guys I thought performed that well."
***One of the glaring holes in NU's final box score was the lack of production from point guards Benny Parker and Peltz. The two were a combined 0-of-6 from the field with five assists (all from Parker) and three turnovers.
"You don't have to score a lot, but maybe some assists in there and maybe some of that other stuff, make a lay-up," Miles said of his point guards.
***With this being his first taste of the Nebraska-Creighton rivalry, Miles said he got a full sense of what the series meant to the state on Thursday night, especially with the second-half loose ball scrum and the obvious presence of Bluejay fans in the Devaney Center.
"I don't think there's any question about that," Miles said. "The scrum and some of the stuff afterward. You hear the chants of whatever the Creighton chant was in the gym. You don't always like to hear that in your gym."
***Miles said Creighton used a lot of the same strategy as Nebraska-Omaha did against the Huskers back on Nov. 18, and the Bluejays were able to do it even more effectively because of the caliber of their players.
"Creighton took a little bit of the Omaha blueprint," Miles said. "Omaha didn't play us much different from this, and when Creighton does that - and they will - are we able to withstand the attack?"
***Almeida agreed that the Huskers at times got away from their game plan when they saw the Bluejays continue to build upon their lead.
"It's just sometimes I think as a team we just, once things start going wrong, we've got to do a better job of sticking with the plan," Almeida said. "I agree. I think some of us just go back to our old habits. We've got to stick to the plan no matter if you're up or if you're down."
***The marked Nebraska first home sellout since Feb. 5, 2011 against Kansas. It was also its first non-conference game sellout since 2006 when it played host to Creighton on Nov. 18, 2006.