Published Monday, November 4, 2013 at 9:03 pm / Updated at 6:55 pm
Here's the word: Husker point guard Tai Webster is a spark plug

LINCOLN — It's difficult to glean a whole lot from a 91-60 exhibition basketball victory like the Nebraska men posted Monday night over the University of Nebraska at Kearney.

But the 7,804 fans who showed up for the soft opening of the 15,174-seat Pinnacle Bank Arena learned one thing: starting point guard Tai Webster can fill up a stat sheet.

In 23 minutes, the true freshman from Auckland, New Zealand, had 12 points, five rebounds, three assists, two blocks and two steals. Overall, he put a crooked number in all 12 statistical categories.

“He got better as he got the nerves out,'' NU coach Tim Miles said. “We wanted to play that whole first group about six or seven straight minutes to start the second half to 'wind' them and get them a little tired.

“I thought he was really good in that whole run. I saw him get more comfortable.''

UNK, down 44-17 at halftime, actually opened the second half on a 10-2 run. Then Webster got the Husker attack moving, sparking a 26-10 outburst. His steal and dunk with 10:27 to play gave NU its biggest lead — 35 points — at 72-37.

The 18-year-old Webster, Nebraska's most decorated recruit in at least 15 years, said he was more excited than nervous in his first official game.

Nebraska got 16 points from sophomore forward Shavon Shields and 12 points each from Webster and junior forward Leslee Smith.

“It was a new experience for me, being in front of a college crowd,'' he said. “This is amazing. I've never played in a gym quite this big. And the fans are amazing as well.''

Despite his national team experience and international tournament play, Webster said the adjustment to the American game will take him time.

“It's a huge change,'' he said. “It's a lot more high-paced, and there are more athletic people out here. But I'm trying to adjust as best as I can. I think I'm doing a good job of creating for my teammates. I should work on scoring a little more.''

Webster hit 3 of his 5 field goals and 6 of 6 free throws. He also had half of Nebraska's eight turnovers, but Miles wasn't concerned.

“He probably needs to take more than five shots,'' the coach said. “But we didn't do much to get him more than five shots.

“We had a couple of other guys eager to get their shots before the guy passing the ball was going to take his.”

Sophomore Shavon Shields took seven shots and made them all on his way to a team-high 16 points. Florida transfer Walter Pitchford, a 6-foot-10 center, took six 3-pointers and made three.

“I don't mind Walt shooting 3s,'' Miles said. “He's a green-light guy for me. He makes more than anybody else. Now, he needs to be a more well-rounded player.''

For UNK, the chance to play in the new arena and pick up $15,000 and 100 game tickets made it worth the trip.

“We were honored and thrilled to have the chance to come down here and play,'' Lopers coach Tom Kropp said. “I guess I'm disappointed — as well as they treated us — that we weren't able to make it a little more worth their while.

“It was a great thrill for our kids. It was a great thrill for me.''

Nebraska-Kearney has 10 new players on its roster after going 7-17 last year. Overall, 11 of the 15 are from in-state.

“Last year, we had a disaster for a team,'' Kropp said. “We had very selfish players. We never got any better. We had kids who didn't work hard. They are no longer with our program.

“We've gone back to Nebraska kids. We've struggled a little over the last five or six years. When we had success, we had Nebraska kids who were hard-nosed and really unselfish.''

Tyler Shields, a junior returning starter from Kearney, led all scorers with 18 points. Doane College transfer Connor Beranek from Ravenna, Neb. — brother of former Husker walk-on Drake Beranek — added 14 points and six rebounds.

NOTES: Injuries and a suspension kept three Huskers off the floor: senior guard Ray Gallegos (hip), freshman guard Nathan Hawkins (foot) and junior guard Deverell Biggs (disciplined for three games for a DUI). Miles said Gallegos probably would have played if it had been a regular-season game. ... The Huskers open the regular season Friday at 8 p.m. hosting Florida Gulf Coast, an NCAA Sweet 16 qualifier last year. ... UNK's first game is Sunday at home against Wayne State.

* * *

Video: Nebraska basketball highlights

Contact the writer: Lee Barfknecht    |   402-444-1024    |  

Lee Barfknecht has won nine national writing awards from four separate organizations, and is a 12-time winner of the Nebraska sportswriter of the year award. He covers Big Ten football and basketball, Nebraska basketball and other college financial issues for The World-Herald.



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