Missing two of its best players for a game most had already chalked up as blowout victory as soon as the season schedule was released, Nebraska found itself having to scrap its way past Alcorn State and avoid an awful upset loss.
Without junior guard Dylan Talley (thigh) or junior center Jorge Brian Diaz (feet) in the lineup, the Huskers had to go deep down their bench to hold off the lowly Braves, 60-46 on Saturday night.
Senior Toney McCray, who started his first game of the season in place of Diaz, scored a season-high 20 points on 9-of-11 shooting, but he was the only NU player to have any consistent offensive success.
Not including McCray, the rest of the Huskers shot just 28.5 percent (12-of-42) from the floor.
"That's two games in a row I thought that we started the basketball game very, very timid, both offensively and defensively," head coach Doc Sadler said. "You can say whatever the reasons; it doesn't really matter. We've just got to get it corrected, because we're not going to be able to come out and play 20 minutes of basketball once we get into league play and be successful."
Offense was hard to come by for both teams in the first half, but Nebraska had an especially difficult time getting shots to fall. While McCray led the way with 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting, the rest of the team was 4-of-21 from the field.
Going nearly seven minutes without a basket, Nebraska allowed Alcorn State to take a 16-14 lead on a jumper by Jarvis Moore with five minutes left in the half. McCray was able to answer with a 3-pointer to reclaim the lead, but the Huskers ended up making just two field goals in the final 11 minutes of the first half.
As a result, they went into halftime leading just 23-21 over an ASU team that had lost seven of its past eight games. The 23 first-half points were also a new season low.
The game stayed close for the first 10 minutes of the second half as well, as Nebraska didn't lead by more than six points until finally pulling away in the final stretch.
After taking a 31-25 lead on a basket by McCray with 16:40 to play, Alcorn State rallied back to cut it 31-30 and kept it within one possession until Nebraska's athleticism finally took over.
Senior guard Caleb Walker had a chance to get the momentum going but missed an alley-oop pass from senior point guard Bo Spencer. As luck wold have it, the Braves got the rebound and then took it down the court and hit a 3-pointer to with nine minutes left to make it 40-39.
Brandon Ubel, McCray came up big again with a dunk of his own to give the Huskers their biggest lead to that point at 46-39 with seven minutes to play.
There was no looking back for the Huskers from there, as they went on to close out the game on 14-6 run.
"I thought the second half defensively we played about as hard and aggressive as we can play, and that's why we probably won the game," Sadler said.
Ubel ended the night with 13 points and eight rebounds, while Walker finished with seven points and eight boards of his own. It was a relatively off night for Spencer, as he scored 11 points on just 3-of-12 shooting.
Ken McDonald led Alcorn State with 16 points.
Now riding a three-game winning streak, Nebraska will look to keep things rolling when it returns to action Tuesday night at home against Central Michigan for its final non-conference game of the season.
With the start of Big Ten Conference play now just 10 days away, the Huskers know they still have a long way to go until they're ready for the challenge that awaits them.
"Offensively, we're very timid right now," Sadler said. "We shouldn't be struggling as much as we are offensively, especially tonight. We've got to understand that the basketball has to get inside for a lot of reasons, but we have to get to the free throw line. We can't rely on the jump shot.
"I'm very, very happy we won the basketball game. I mean, with less than 10 minutes to go it could have went either way. But you've got to give our guys credit the second half for playing hard."
Around the rim
***Sadler said Talley was a late scratch from the game after he pulled himself out of the lineup during pre-game warm-ups. He told Sadler his bruised thigh was hurting too much for him to play Saturday night.
"He wasn't able to practice this afternoon, and then he came in from warm-ups and said 'hey Coach, I can't play,'" Sadler said. "We need him, but again, his leg's really bothering him."
***As for Diaz, Sadler said Friday he expected him to miss at least Saturday's game and Tuesday's game against Central Michigan due to his lingering injured feet. However, based on what he's seen from Diaz so far, the timetable for his return his still up in the air.
"I'm just hoping to have Brian back by (Dec. 27 against Wisconsin)," Sadler said. "That's going to be very questionable. If you watch him walk around here, he can't hardly walk."
***Sadler said he was obviously pleased with McCray's performance. McCray's seven rebounds on the night were also a season high.
"I thought Toney McCray probably played as hard as you can play," he said. "I was very, very pleased with his effort."
***McCray said he didn't feel any added pressure to step up offensively in the absence of Diaz and Talley.
"Even though they are good scorers and everything like that, everybody on the team can score," McCray said. "Everybody can make shots, put the ball on the floor and make baskets. So I didn't think that was something we were going to be lacking. I thought we were going to need a lot more rebounding, a lot more energy because we were missing those two guys."
***Ubel's eight rebounds marked his the third straight game with at least eight boards. He's averaged 9.7 points and 9.0 rebounds per game during that stretch.
***Nebraska's 17 offensive rebounds in the win were a season high and the most since hauling in 19 at Kansas on Jan. 15, 2011.
** *The Huskers have now held three opponents to 50 points or less this season.
***Redshirt freshman guard Trevor Menke made his career debut as he played four minutes in the second half. He missed a 3-pointer on his lone shot attempt.