It certainly wasn't the most conventional way to do it, but Nebraska started off the 2008-09 season with a victory nonetheless.
Despite a horrendous offensive performance in the second half in which the Huskers managed just five points through the first 14 minutes and shot just 26.7 percent from the field, they were able to hold off San Jose State long enough to pull out a 63-46 win Sunday at the Devaney Center.
Redshirt freshman Toney McCray led the way with a game-high 17 points and nine rebounds for the Huskers, while seniors Ryan Anderson and Paul Velander both followed up with nine points each.
"For the first game I thought we played really hard, and that's a credit," head coach Doc Sadler said. "The first half it looked like we played better than we did because we shot the ball so well. Defensively we were good, but offensively I'm not sure our offense was as good as it may have looked in the first half. It's just that we made shots. The second half we come out, and again, the same thing we did against Chadron (State), but our half-court offense right now has a lot of work to be done."
Leading 38-20 at halftime, Nebraska came out about as cold offensively as it possibly could have. Unable to establish any sort of rhythm with the ball, the Huskers watched their lead shrink to 43-38 after the Spartans put together an 18-5 run to open the second half.
Finally, with 6:13 left in the game, Velander drained a 3-pointer to put NU back up by eight. Redshirt freshman guard Brandon Richardson then made a huge play when he stole the ensuing inbound pass and was fouled on a lay-up that turned into another 3-point play.
After a pair of McCray free throws increased the lead to 51-38, Richardson stole the ball again and delivered a beautiful behind-the-back pass to Velander while falling out of bounds. Velander missed the lay-up, but sophomore Cookie Miller was cleaned up with a put back to extend the lead to 15 with a little more than 5 minutes remaining.
"Overall, I was pleased," Sadler said. "I thought we had some young guys come into the ball game, and I thought they were the difference in the game as far as energy was concerned. I thought Brandon Richardson did a nice job not just scoring points, but making energy plays. He did a nice job there.
"I think you got a chance maybe to see how we're going to try to play most of the time and the people that we're going to try to play most of the time. For the first game, I thought it was pretty good."
Nebraska's shooting woes a concern for Sadler
Though its defense was able to keep San Jose State in check the entire game, Sadler expressed some concern over Nebraska's inability to establish any sort of offensive consistency on Sunday.
The Huskers were able to put together a few scoring spurts that helped break the game open, but a certain points - especially in the second half - they simply looked inept with the basketball.
In the first half, NU shot 44.1 percent from the floor, including an impressive 7-of-12 (58.3 percent) from beyond the arc. However, when those perimeter shots stopped falling in the second half, the Huskers had trouble coming up with a back-up plan.
The Huskers' couldn't buy a bucket after halftime, hitting just 1-of-9 3-pointers in the second half and 8-of-15 free throws while shooting an overall 26.7 percent from the field.
"You can't do that," Sadler said. "If you're making shots, that's one thing, but if you go through three or four possessions, you better get to the foul line or you better get something driving to the basket, and we didn't do a good job of that."
Sadler was asked how much this team would have to continue to rely on its play defensively to keep it in games this season.
"I think a lot," he said. "You got a chance to see, you know when we struggled in the past you could always maybe run some things and get an easy basket. Right now, you're running things to get perimeter shots, and that's not always good. We've got to shore a lot of stuff up offensively."
Sadler said the Spartans initially came out with a press defense to open the game, but eventually backed away from that and made the Huskers try and create scoring opportunities with their half-court offense.
The lack of a dominant presence in the post definitely showed, as Nebraska couldn't seem to get the ball inside and instead continuously settled for perimeter shots.
"Defensively, it's going to be a team that's going to play pretty much like you saw today, but offensively, you're right, it's going to be a team that plays in spurts," Sadler said. "Unfortunately, it's hard to press if you don't make a basket, so you have to score to be able to get into your press, and I think that had a lot to do with us the first 10 minutes of the second half also."
For the players, there was definitely a sense of frustration as they struggled to find their groove offensively. Even McCray, who was the only Husker to score in double digits, said he had trouble figuring out a way to counter San Jose State's zone defense.
"It was a little tough," McCray said. "We were getting confused on what we was supposed to do. The other team was playing really good defense at the time, so it was a little frustrating for us."
"Our half-court offense, I don't know, it's just something we're going to have to work on in practice. I'm pretty sure Doc is going to get on us in practice. So it'll get fixed."
Bench comes up big
While Nebraska's five starters combined for just 22 points, its bench was able to pick up the slack in a big way. All together, 10 different players scored at least two points on Sunday, including six players off the bench.
Combined, NU's bench accounted for 41 of its 63 points.
Sadler said he wasn't surprised by those numbers, and that he's said all along that he didn't see much of a difference between his starters and back-ups.
"I don't know that there's that much difference," he said. "I think some of our best offensive players come off the bench. This team is going to be a team that's fun to watch, but it's going to be crazy to coach, because when you don't have that low-post presence, it's going to get frustrating at times offensively."
***Sadler said that along with Nebraska's shooting woes, he was especially disappointed in his team's free throw percentage. The Huskers made just 9-of-17 shots from the charity stripe, including 8-of-15 in the second half.
"We've got to make free throws," Sadler said. "We're 9-of-17 from the free-throw line. We've been shooting free throws in practice. We've got to make free throws."
***The Huskers might have caught their biggest break of the game when San Jose State junior forward C.J. Webster was held out of the Sunday's contest with an ankle injury. At 6-foot-9, 255 pounds, Webster was the Spartans leading scorer and rebounder last season.
"It would've definitely been a different ball game if Webster would've played," he said.
***Junior forward Chris Balham made his first-career start on Sunday, though he managed just two rebounds and zero points in eight minutes of playing time.
***Senior guard Steve Harley celebrated his 23rd birthday Sunday with four points, three assists and a career-high six rebounds.
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