UTSA gave Nebraska its best shot — several of them actually — but the Huskers got stops when they needed to in order to pull away down the stretch for a 104-94 victory on Wednesday night.
The Roadrunners (7-6) shot 15-of-31 from 3-point range (the most 3s ever made by an opponent at Pinnacle Bank Arena) including 9-of-18 in the second half, but Nebraska (8-5) put its collective heads down and went to the rim all night, shooting a season-high 37-of-50 from the foul line after attempting just 11 free throws combined in its last two losses to Creighton and Kansas.
“We’d added a couple things to try and get to the foul line more and we ran them and did get fouled, so that’s a good start,” Coach Tim Miles said. “When we can get downhill a little bit, I think it opens everything else up too.”
The 104 points is Nebraska’s highest total since Dec. 19, 2005 when the Huskers beat North Carolina A&T 107-57. The huskers also matched their season high with 11 3 pointers on 24 attempts (45.8 percent).
Junior guard James Palmer Jr. led the way with a career-high 25 points on 5-of-11 from the field and 13-of-17 from the charity stripe. Senior guard Anton Gill gave the Huskers a big boost off the bench as well with a career-high 21 points, shooting 6-of-11 from the field, 4-of-8 from deep and 5-of-5 from the line despite suffering through a migraine that kept him out of pre-game warm-ups.
“It was kind of a question mark, going through warm ups and by game time he was giving it a try,” Miles said. “You look at 21 points later and you think 'well that worked out good.' We needed him.”
Senior guard Evan Taylor added 16 points (his highest total as a Husker) on 4-of-6 from the field and 7-of-8 from the charity stripe. Junior guard Glynn Watson Jr. added 13 points and sophomore forward Isaiah Roby chipped in 10 points and six rebounds off the bench, finishing a team-best plus-13 in 22 minutes.
Both teams came out ice cold as the Huskers limped out to a 3-2 lead at the first media timeout. UTSA pulled ahead 10-7 six minutes in, but Gill checked in and knocked down a pair of 3s then scored inside, totaling eight points in four minutes to energize the Huskers.
"Tonight was one of those nights where it felt like we were running in mud early,” Miles said. “Not a lot of spark. It looked like we were in a fog, so to speak. I felt like we got some good sparks.”
UTSA tied it up at 17-all, but Nebraska went on a 10-0 run to create some separation as the Roadrunners missed six straight shots. UTSA finally snapped the streak with a 3-pointer, but Gill answered on the other end with this third trey of the half.
Nebraska got sophomore center Jordy Tshimanga a couple of point-blank looks and he finished to build the lead up to 13. The Huskers and Roadrunners went back in forth with the gap growing as large as 14, but UTSA hit six of eight shots to cut it down to five with just under a minute to play.
Taylor got a bucket to push it back to seven, capping his 13-point first half, and Nebraska got a stop to earn a 49-42 advantage at the break.
After going scoreless in the first half, forward Nick Allen came alive early in the second, scoring on three straight possessions with a mid-range jumper, a layup and a 3 to pull UTSA within two. Watson answered, scoring eight points in the span of 100 seconds to push the lead back to eight.
“Glynn wasn’t at his best; 1-for-3 at halftime, 1-for-4 from the foul line, I don't know if he had an assist or not,” Miles said. “You really could see as he was coming down in transition that he was going to pull and I want him taking that shot. I thin that was really good for us.”
A 3-pointer by freshman guard Thomas Allen pushed the lead back up to 11, but after trading possessions, UTSA put together a 10-0 run to tie the game at 70-all. Roby, Palmer and Taylor all made big plays for the Huskers, but UTSA had an answer every time, usually in the form of a Jhivvan Jackson bucket, as the Roadrunners tied the game up five different times in the second half.
The highlight of that stretch was a powerful dunk by Roby over the top of UTSA’s Toby Van Ry, a 6-foot-10 junior.
With the game tied at 86-all, Nebraska put together a 9-0 run including six points by Gill and five by Palmer.
"As I recall, they came out of timeout in a zone,” Miles said. “We had a zone play drawn up and we hit Isaac [Copeland], who was not having a very good game tonight. Isaac kicks it opposite and Anton hits a three. We stalled out the next possession but kept the ball moving. Anton gets fouled on a three and in the meantime we got a stop. We contested a shot and they took a deep three and it didn't go in. We contested it better on a switch and we had a couple blocked shots around the rim with Roby. So just a couple of defensive stops, we were able to score and I think that relaxed us a bit."
UTSA got a bucket to cut the deficit to seven with 1:43 to play, but Nebraska shot 9-of-10 from the free-throw line down the stretch to seal the victory.
“They are a really good team,” UTSA coach Steve Henson said. “I’ve watched some of their games, they’ve done that to other people. Boston College was a close game going into the last few minutes they just shut them out down the stretch. Kansas the other night, close ball game, shut them out until the very last shot pretty much. So we knew we had the capability of screeching us to a halt. They are a good team. They have good depth, good size, good players. I’ve got a lot of respect for them.”
Jackson, a freshman who leads UTSA in scoring despite coming off the bench, finished with a game-high 26 points, shooting 5-of10 from downtown.
Despite the five ties, Nebraska never feel behind in the second half.
“I think it proves prayers do work,” Miles said. “It was important; this team especially, I think we need to play from the front. We’re best from the front … It was a good win. Not pretty, but it’s still NASCAR principle — every car’s supposed to be the same but we know some cars just don’t have it. Tonight instead of getting eighth, we got third and we got more out of it.”
After dropping mid-December games to lower-level opponents in the last three years, Nebraska managed to make enough plays to hold on for a win this time.
Taylor said he was happy to get the win in a game very similar to the ones in mid-December Nebraska lost in each of the past three years — to Incarnate Word, to Samford and to Gardner-Webb. Miles pointed out that the loss to Samford even came on the same date.
“We have lost this game three years in a row,” Taylor said. “Today we won. It was tough. We knew the game was going to be hard. We can’t underestimate any opponent, but shout-out to our guys and our coaches. We were able to weather the storm and win a tough one."
Nebraska will have a quick turnaround as the Huskers will be back at the Vault on Friday night for a 7 p.m. tipoff against Delaware State.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.