The Nebraska team that showed up for most of Saturday's game with Michigan State brought to mind previous overmatched but hard-working Husker squads that were able to gut out wins over ranked teams like Texas and Kansas State in recent years.
Unfortunately, the squad that took the floor for the first eight minutes of the second half looked like the one that was crushed by Wisconsin Tuesday.
After leading the entire first half, the Huskers allowed Michigan State to go on a 20-4 run to start the second period. Unlike in the Wisconsin game, NU fought back, twice making runs to trim the Michigan State lead to less than five points, but couldn't quite close the deal, falling 68-55.
"I wasn't sure that our team competed against Wisconsin," NU coach Doc Sadler said. "I thought we got down and got frustrated. Tonight, I think for 40 minutes our guys played as hard as they can play. We just can't make the mistakes we made against good teams."
Nebraska cut the Spartan lead to three with 8:30 left, then reduced it to four points four minutes later after a Michigan State run.
But the Huskers could never quite overcome the huge deficit, and Michigan State kept NU at arm's length with their free-throw shooting (19-21 overall).
Sadler tinkered with his lineup before the game, starting freshman Josiah Moore in place of leading scorer Bo Spencer in an effort to inject some scoring into the second unit. The move worked initially, as Spencer hit two 3-pointers soon after checking in.
The Huskers started off hot in the first half, jumping to early leads and securing a 30-29 edge at intermission. NU held the Spartans to 39 percent shooting and scoreless from 3-point range.
Sadler knew MSU liked to play an up-tempo style and get the ball inside, particularly to Draymond Green. To counter, Sadler made sure he had all three guards retreating quickly when the Spartans began their break and doubled the post almost every time the ball went in.
"He did a lot better job than I did today," MSU coach Tom Izzo said of Sadler. "They played as hard as anybody we've played. I give credit to Doc. Early on, they were swarming. They were moving. We weren't real sharp, and I think they deserve a lot of credit for that."
But Izzo made a few adjustments in the second half. He spaced his wing players more to prevent the Huskers from trapping so frequently and encouraged point guard Keith Appling to be more aggressive. Those factors, along with another offensive dry spell by NU, led to the huge Michigan State run.
It was at this point against Wisconsin that the air came out of the balloon for the Huskers. The shoulders shrugged and the effort sagged.
But Saturday was a different story. NU battled back, keeping the crowd of 9,024 loud and engaged.
"We knew they were going to make a run," NU guard Toney McCray said. "When it got to that point, we were saying, 'This is when the game really starts.' I've been here for five years and I see this all the time in league play. It gets down to something like that where we're up five, down five. Whoever executes and carries out their assignments the best is going to win."
Spencer led the Huskers with 15 points and McCray added 14.
Green spearheaded the Spartan attack with 19 points, but struggled from the field, shooting just 4-for-11. He made his impact on the free throw line, where he was perfect on nine attempts.
"I knew the type of things he was going to do," McCray said. "He just outplayed me on both ends. He kept his composure throughout the game, something I don't think I did very well."
Despite the end result, Sadler made it clear to his team they shouldn't hang their heads. Although they were outshot and outrebounded, the Huskers' effort kept them in the game until the end.
"This team, as I've said all along, is going to win some ballgames," Sadler said. "I believe that. As long as we continue to compete, we're going to have some shots at it. We've just got to finish it off. I think we had some opportunities, but we just didn't capitalize on them."
*-Josiah Moore made his first career start against Michigan State and is the first freshmen to start for the Huskers since the 2009-10 season (Jorge Brian Diaz vs. Texas A&M in the second round of the Big 12 Tournament).
*-Nebraska starts conference play 0-2 for the first time since 2009-10 following back-to-back losses to No. 11 Wisconsin and No. 16 Michigan State. It is the first time since 2001-02 that NU has faced ranked teams in its first two conference games.
*-Bo Spencer came off the bench to finish with a team-high 15 points, including three 3-pointers, as Nebraska bench totaled 18 points. In the prior three games, the Husker bench had combined for 11 points
*-Toney McCray reached double figures for the fourth straight game with 14 points. It is the only the second time in his career that he has been in double figures in four straight games (other was Feb. 26-March 9, 2011)
*-Nebraska's 25 3-point attempts were a season high and the most since taking 31 against Creighton last season
*-Nebraska was out-rebounded 38-24 against MSU. It was the first time NU had been out-rebounded by at least 10 rebounds since Jan. 22, 2011, against Texas Tech. The larges rebounding deficit NU had prior to Saturday's game was three.
*-Nebraska went 12 of 15 from the foul line, the fifth time this season the Huskers have shot at least 80 percent in a game.
*- Is the first time in five New Year's Eve games Nebraska has lost at home.
*-Christopher Niemann's three rebounds were a season high, as he also had three vs. Rhode Island on Nov. 20.
*-Brandon Richardson had six assists, his second highest total of the year and five rebounds on his 23rd birthday today.