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November 25, 2008

Defense leads Huskers to big win over Billikens

The first sentence out of Nebraska head coach Doc Sadler's mouth explained all there was to know about his take on the Huskers' 71-57 win over Saint Louis on Tuesday night.

"Wow," he said. "What a way to make a living."

It was perfectly clear that Sadler was more than happy with his team's performance, as the Huskers played what he dubbed as the most complete game they've played all season to improve to a perfect 4-0 on the year.

"Going into the game tonight, you knew that you were going to have to play an awfully good basketball game, and I think that this was probably the most complete game we've played all year," Sadler said. "Overall, I'm very pleased. I mean, that's a huge win for us. That basketball team makes you beat them. They don't beat themselves. We were fortunate to get the win."

Led by 19 points from junior guard Sek Henry, Nebraska was able to take the lead less than 30 seconds into the game and never look back, as the Huskers never trailed in the contest.

Senior guard Ade Dagunduro also had a nice game, as he finished 14 points, and senior guard Steve Harley added 12 to help lead the way for NU.

Despite the quality offensive performances, Sadler said he was far more impressed with the Huskers' play defensively against the Billikens. All together, Nebraska scored 19 points on 13 Saint Louis turnovers and held the Billikens to shoot just 41.7 percent from the field.

Though Saint Louis out-rebounded NU 28-20, including a 12-3 advantage in offensive rebounds, Sadler said he knew the Huskers would have to play one of their best defensive games of the season to beat the Billikens, and that's exactly what they got.

"Defensively, I thought we were a good defensive team," Sadler said. "I also knew it was going to be our biggest challenge on the defensive boards, and it proved to be that with them getting 12 offensive rebounds. But even saying that, I thought our guys really busted and competed on the boards."

The first half started off relatively quiet for both teams, and Nebraska held just a 12-8 advantage more than seven minutes into the game. But Dangunduro helped kick things into gear for the Huskers by scoring five points in a 7-0 run that put NU up 19-8 with 9:40 left in the first half.

The Huskers increased their lead to 12 on a 3-pointer by senior Paul Velander, but the Billikens were able to rally back and cut the deficit to 33-29 with a minute left in the half on a 7-2 run.

However, a pair of free throws from Velander and a breakaway layup by Harley off a nice block from redshirt freshman Toney McCray helped increase Nebraska's lead to 37-29 going into halftime.

"I think that was the early start we were looking for," Dagunduro said. "We came out, stopped them on defense and scored. We limited their second-chance points in the first half, so I definitely think that was start we were looking for."

From there, it was all Nebraska, as the Huskers never led by less than six points and actually held as big as a 17-point advantage late in the second half.

Freshman forward Brian Conklin (no relation to the former Husker) scored a team-high 18 points with six rebounds to lead Saint Louis, which dropped to 2-2 on the season with the loss.

"It definitely was a pretty big win," Dagunduro said. "We're going to carry this game into the next game and get ready for our next game. It's obviously is a huge win for us. We're on a nice little win streak, but we've got to get focused and get ready for our next game."

'Best defensive practice' sets tone for win

While Sadler was obviously pleased with Nebraska's play defensively in Tuesday's victory, he really couldn't say he was all that surprised by it after Monday's practice.

In what he described as the best defensive practice he's seen since taking over at NU in 2006, every one of the Huskers' players stepped up their intensity in Monday's practice and set the tone for their performance on Tuesday night.

"I thought defensively, yesterday was the best practice I've been associated with since I've been here," Sadler said. "I thought defensively, it was to the point where I was frustrated offensively. I think if we continue to get that kind of defense, our offense is going to continue to improve in practice. I think you got a chance to see that today."

Nebraska's players said they agreed with Sadler's evaluation of Monday's practice, saying their play defensively was so good that some of them almost wanted to tell Sadler it wasn't that their play offensively was that bad, it was that their defense was that good.

"Coach, he was questioning what was going on with our offense, and I wanted to just like raise my hand and say, 'Coach, it's the defense. It's the defense. Everybody's just stopping each other,'" Dagunduro said. "It was intense. The first group and the second group were stopping each other, and that's a tribute to our coach. We get after it in practice, and that gets us ready for the game."

Effort plays make big difference in victory

If Sadler could get all of his players to play like Velander, he would be a very happy coach.

That was the impression Sadler gave when responding to a question about Nebraska's effort plays on Tuesday night, in which the Huskers dove for loose balls and took charges to help set up big plays and keep the momentum in NU's favor all night long.

"Well we've got to get the rest of the team to make effort plays like Paul Velander," Sadler said. "I mean, there's not a player in the country that makes more effort plays than that guy. It's contagious. You get one or two guys doing that, more guys will start doing that."

While Velander's plays were definitely some of the more noticeable in the game, players like redshirt freshman guard Brandon Richardson also sacrificed their bodies on several occasions while trying to make plays on the basketball.

Henry said watching players like Velander and Richardson make those kinds of effort plays inspires the entire team to go out and give that much more effort on the court.

"That helps a whole lot," Henry said. "That shows intensity, and our Coach even loved it. You saw him one time, Coach got up and was like, 'Good job, Brandon! Good job, Paul!' That's what we do at practice, and what we do at practice, Coach wants us to do in the game. That's what we did."

Getting to the basket a priority for NU

After watching his team's half-court offense continuously settle for 3-pointers and long perimeter shots through the first three games of the season, Sadler said he made it a point to make his players attack the basket more against Saint Louis.

Judging from their 20 points in the paint and 16 free-throw attempts in the game, that goal was accomplished.

Sadler said he felt the Huskers could drive against the Billikens' defense, and stressed to his team from the beginning of the game to be patient and try to get the ball to the hoop.

"That's coaching," he said half-jokingly. "If you ask the guys, that's what we try to tell them in first time out, is that we can drive the basketball on these guys. We've got to be willing to pass up that first shot. I think at one time we were like 1-for-5 from the 3-point line, but we were shooting it pretty quick because they were playing off.

"But I thought that if we would handle it and move it and get some different cuts, I thought we could drive it. I thought we did do a good job of that."

Especially considering the fact that Nebraska shot just 5-of-14 from 3-point range, the Huskers needed to find a way to get the to basket and create higher-percentage shots off the dribble. That strategy had a lot to do with the NU's ability to shoot 59 percent from the field.

"I think our shooting percentage is up because I think we took better shots," Sadler said. "I've said all along, if we just be patient, we've got good enough offensive guys that offense will come."

The players said Saint Louis initially came out with a soft zone defense, which made it difficult to drive to the hoop or find open passing lanes on cuts to the basket. As a result, the Huskers felt forced to shoot longer perimeter shots.

Early on in the first half, though, Sadler said enough was enough, and Nebraska was eventually able to get to the basket more and more as the game went along. In the first half, NU shot 10 3-pointers, while it only shot four in the second.

"Coach put a lot of focus on that," Dagunduro said. "To start the game, they were playing us soft, so it was kind of hard to drive in there and we started settling for 3s. Coach quickly adjusted that, he said, 'No more. We got to start attacking the basket and getting some fouls and getting some easy layups.'"

Quick hits

***Sadler said he was especially happy with Nebraska's ability to take care of the ball on Tuesday, as the Huskers committed a season-low six turnovers in the game.

"The thing that I think is the most gratifying for me is that this basketball team is doing a nice job on turnovers," he said. "We only turned the ball over six times, and I don't care what you do, if this team will do that, they will have a chance to compete in most every game."

Henry seemed impressed with the turnover total as well, saying last year the Huskers thought it was an accomplishment if they kept their turnovers each game under 20.

"That's great," Henry said. "Last year, we used to say we needed to keep our turnovers under 20. And only six turnovers (tonight), that's really good. That's a credit not just to me and Cookie, but to the team and the way we practice. We pressure each other so hard, so when game time comes we're used to so many presses."

***The Huskers will take Wednesday off before returning for practices on Thursday and Friday. Sadler said he hasn't done any preparation yet for Saturday's big intrastate showdown with Creighton, which is set to tip off at 7 p.m. He said the Huskers will begin work on the Bluejays when they return to practice on Thursday.

***Henry said he had some tendonitis flare up in his knee during Tuesday's game, and wore an ice pack during his postgame interview. However, he said he wasn't worried about missing any playing time this weekend, saying he was fine.



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