LINCOLN, Neb. – Career nights for the duo from Oceania in an otherwise ugly game led the Huskers to a 65-54 win over Louisiana Tech in front of a crowd of 12,549 at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Saturday night.
Tai Webster, the senior guard from New Zealand, scored 23 points, besting his previous career-high of 22 set against Iowa last season, and dished out a team-best four assists. He shot 11-of-12 from the free-throw line and scored 17 of his points in the first half.
“Webster put a lot of pressure on us,” Louisiana Tech coach Erik Konkol said. “He is a very good driver. He’s got a very good hesitation move. We were trying to do some different things to contain him and keep him out of the paint, but he kept getting in there and putting pressure on us. He shot 12 free throws tonight and that was a big part of it.”
Webster overcame some early turnover issues – he committed all five of his giveaways in the first 11 minutes of the game – to lead the Huskers to a 32-26 lead at halftime.
“It was definitely something that was on the back of my mind,” Webster said about his turnovers. “I knew I turned it over a lot. Something like five times in the first half, or something like that. Yeah, I struggled with it but I’m just trying to put it behind and carry on. Just trying to be aggressive, I felt like it didn’t really stop me from being aggressive.”
The Bulldogs shifted their attention to keeping Webster out of the paint in the second half, and that’s where McVeigh found a rhythm. The Australian sophomore forward caught fire and scored 16 second-half points including three triples to help keep the Bulldogs at bay despite a late rally.
McVeigh finished with 21 points – improving on his previous career-best of 17 set against Indiana as a freshman – and shot 4-of-6 from deep. He also chipped in five rebounds, two steals and an assist and drew praise from Coach Tim Miles for his defensive effort.
“He was really good tonight,” Miles said. “And he has improved. One of the things he does, he’s a very good help defender. He talks and gets other guys in their position and helps out, and his on-ball defense has been clearly better too. People will put him in the mix. Mary did it, [Sacramento] State did it. These guys did it. They get him switched on to somebody and try to drive him and he’s done a pretty good job. I just think he fools them by the way he runs, which is a pretty good trick for him.”
After knocking down a few shots from the perimeter, McVeigh also made the Bulldogs pay for hard closeouts by putting the ball on the deck and getting to the basket for a couple of layups. The sophomore said that was one of the areas he focused on improving during the offseason.
“We’ve been in there trying to work on it and stuff,” McVeigh said. “Improve the all-around game that comes with time and practice, just getting used to the American speed of the game as well helps a lot. The pace gaps close and hands come in, stuff I’m still learning.”
Sophomore forward Ed Morrow Jr. was the only other Huskers to make more than one shot as he finished with nine points and six rebounds while shooting 4-of-7 from the floor.
Webster, McVeigh and Morrow accounted for 53 points on 15-29 shooting (6-of-9 from deep). The rest of the roster combined for 12 points on 4-of-22 shooting, including 0-9 from 3-point range. Sophomore point guard Glynn Watson Jr. – who was leading the Big Ten in player efficiency rating heading into the contest – struggled mightily, finishing with two points on 1-of-9 shooting and three turnovers after committing just one turnover in the previous three games including the exhibition.
Miles said the game plan going in wasn’t necessarily so Webster and McVeigh-centric, but those two stepped up and took advantage of their opportunities.
“They just took what the game gave them,” Miles said. ‘Now, we went to Tai. Tai probably thinks it’s about a third as much as we should. Tai is a go-to guy. I just love the look in his eye, I like his body language, I like the way he’s approaching everything as a challenge. Even when he struggled tonight with some turnovers early, a lot of times he might’ve shut down and tonight he just kind of took his breath, stayed in there. He’s lucky, he’s a senior; his rope is longer than a lot of other ropes.”
Louisiana Tech struck first as Jacobi Boykins knocked down his first two 3-point attempts, and the Bulldogs held a lead (15-14) as late as the midway point of the first half. However, Nebraska closed the first half on an 18-11 run and never trailed again.
Louisiana Tech pulled within one possession a few times, but the Huskers stretched out their lead to as much as 11 several times. Louisiana Tech made one last rally as a pair of buckets by senior forward Erik McCree cut the deficit to six with 57 seconds to play, but Nebraska shot 5-of-5 from the foul line and held Louisiana Tech without another bucket to seal the victory.
“I really like the way our defensive intensity was after the first x-amount of minutes. Coach [Jim] Molinari had a great game plan. I thought he did an excellent job of knowing exactly what these guys could do. This is a tough group, Louisiana Tech. They’re picked very high in their conference, chance to win it for a reason, great athleticism, and they know how to win. You don’t put up that many wins over how many years without knowing what you’re doing, and Eric is an excellent young coach.
“I was proud of our guys to be able to grind out and really do a good job defensively. Boykins got us a couple times early, and then we were switching, and they were settling behind for an open 3. We quit doing that and Tai Webster did a really good job and Jack McVeigh did a really good job on McCree. Now we just have to get some of those younger guys up to speed and go from there. Those six guys that played the most minutes tonight were really impressive to me defensively.”
In addition to starters – Webster, McVeigh, Watson, Morrow and sophomore forward Michael Jacobson, reserve utility guard Evan Taylor was the only other Huskers to see extensive action. Taylor, a junior college transfer, played 26 minutes and chipped in three rebounds, two points, two steals and one assist – hardly eye-popping numbers. However, Miles said it was his defense that got him on the floor.
“Just the length, and especially with the ball-handling,” Miles said. “Those guys are so quick, and you know you’re going to get pressed in some form, and they’re going to harass you, just [having] another handler. They just had too many guards out there; I couldn’t play the two bigs together as much as I wanted to.”
The Huskers will now hit the road for the first time this season to compete in the Wooden Legacy in Fullerton, California. Nebraska’s first game is against Dayton on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. The Flyers recently lost starting forward Josh Cunningham to a torn ankle ligament and will be without him indefinitely.