LINCOLN, Neb. — Sunday night’s season opening win over Sacramento State for the Nebraska basketball team was a tale of two units. The starting five, led by sophomore Glynn Watson Jr. and consisting of the five healthy returners, dominated the Hornets. The bench, consisting of five newcomers, however, struggled to get anything going and never found a groove, allowing Sacramento State to hang around.
In the end, the Huskers pulled away for an 83-61 win in front of a crowd of 10,083 at Pinnacle Bank Arena, but it was far from easy. Leading 36-33 at halftime, Coach Tim Miles turned to his young veterans to set an example.
“I told the younger guys we are going to play the upper guys, we’re going to play them for a long time and they’re going to show you how to win, how to play winning basketball,” Miles said. “I thought they played rock solid, extended the lead. We’ve just got to get the butterflies out of those young guys. There was some nervousness, some carelessness, nonchalant play and none of that is successful. The aggressor wins in basketball, in competition.”
The starting five – consisting of senior Tai Webster and sophomores Ed Morrow Jr., Michael Jacobson, Jack McVeigh and Watson – played together for the first 8:09 of the second half and they stretched the lead to 59-44 before Miles made his first substitution.
“That gave us a lot of confidence and a lot of leeway so we could get up and coast from there,” Webster said. “I think that’s what helped us out to get our lead up and be able to play our game. Then they had to press and that’s why we got a lot more easy shots.”
The lead never dipped below 12 the rest of the way and ballooned to as much as 26 in the final minute.
Even the starters struggled to get going early, failing to convert several looks around the rim. Watson, the team’s point guard, took it upon himself to jump-start the offense. He played 14 minutes in the first half and in that time he tied his career-high with 17 points. For the game, he finished with a new personal best of 23 points on 9-of-14 shooting with six assists, five rebounds, three steals and no turnovers.
“I just tried to play aggressive and execute our game plan,” Watson said. “That was basically what I tried to do, was play aggressive and try to get my teammates open. I had open shots so I took them.”
Watson’s performance was even more impressive considering Miles said he played through a “bad headache.”
“We had to take him out two or three times and just get him hydrated and just made sure he got medicine,” Miles said. “If he can do that in that condition – he was really good, he did really good against Iowa State, he did what he had to do against Chadron. Glynn is a guy that is a game changer. I remember we got him signed and Ed Morrow hadn’t committed yet and Ed said ‘Coach, he’s a game changer, that kid’s a game changer.’ He was right.”
Webster, the lone senior on the roster, struggled mightily in the first half but was nearly perfect in the second to finish with 20 points on 7-of-12 shooting, 18 of which came after halftime.
Morrow also got off to a slow start but finished with 15 points including some emphatic dunks. McVeigh led the team in minutes (32), 3-point shooting (3-of-5) and rebounding (seven) and finished with 14 points.
“At the beginning of the year, we had a team meeting; I met with the sophomores,” Miles said. “There’s the old saying if you’ve ever been around athletics, when you coach freshmen, at the semester break the old coach says ‘You know you’re not freshmen anymore, you’re sophomores. I told the guys ‘listen, you four sophomores especially have logged more minutes than a lot of juniors in high-major basketball, and I expect you to play like veterans,’ and I think that’s what we saw tonight. We saw a lot of development from those guys and we saw excellent play and I thought the second half was really good.”
The entire bench scored nine points on 2-of-16 shooting and had two assists to five turnovers. However, the bench includes one transfer and two freshmen who have missed significant practice time leading up to the season.
“They’ve got to learn the speed of the game,” Miles said. “I think the larger concern is getting up to speed, and that takes time … Jordy [Tshimanga] missed a week-plus with a concussion. Isaiah [Roby] missed three-and-a-half months. That has an effect on guys. Anton Gill missed two-and-a-half months. Those are all guys that are not up to speed.”
As a team, Nebraska shot 47.7 percent from the field and 54.5 percent from beyond the 3-point line. Conversely, Sacramento State shot 41.5 percent from the field and 28.6 percent from deep. Nebraska dominated the glass 43-29 and won the turnover battle 11-14.
The Huskers are back at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Tuesday night to host Miles’ alma mater, the University of Mary. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m.
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.