LINCOLN — The good news for Nebraska from the men’s basketball game Saturday at Pinnacle Bank Arena is its record improved from 4-2 to 5-2.
The not-so-good news is the path the Huskers followed to their 63-58 win over Northern Illinois in front of 11,358 fans. They nearly frittered away a 13-point lead with 13 minutes to play.
“I’m very disappointed we let them back in the game because of the way we let them back in the game,” NU coach Tim Miles said.
“We got careless. We started to worry about the highlight plays. We missed some free throws. And we had some turnovers that were uncharacteristic of this team.”
Things appeared off-kilter for Nebraska from the start.
The game was more than 10 minutes old before NU took its first lead against the Huskies (2-4), whose season began with a two-point home loss to the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Nebraska took a 35-28 lead at halftime, increased the margin to 13 points at 48-35 with 13:21 to play, then made only three baskets the rest of the way and missed six free throws down the stretch.
With three seconds left, Northern Illinois guard Travon Baker fired a 3-pointer that would have tied the game, but missed.
“I’m glad they didn’t make it,” Miles said. “That game needed to end.”
Few would have argued that.
The Huskers made 3 of 15 3-pointers. They had more turnovers (16) than assists (10). And they had foul trouble again, as second-leading scorer Shavon Shields played only 17 minutes before being disqualified with just seven points. Fortunately for NU, Northern Illinois shot only 67.9 percent from the line.
“It’s an ugly win,” said sophomore wing Terran Petteway, who had 12 points and five rebounds. “The mood ... we’re not too down, but not too happy.”
It took guard Deverell Biggs and forward Leslee Smith to hop off the bench and spark the win.
Biggs, the junior out of Omaha Central, had 18 points in 20 minutes. And his points came at important times.
Biggs’ three-point play midway through the first half gave Nebraska its first lead. His 3-pointer with 14:05 to play created an 11-point lead. And down the stretch, he had two of the team’s three baskets and drilled four free throws in the final 7.6 seconds to secure the win.
“Offensively,” Miles said, “he brings a lot to the table.”
What limits Biggs to 19 minutes a game is the other half of the game.
“Deverell’s biggest issue is defensive discipline,” Miles said. “He’ll just kind of go on his own page. You can’t have that.”
Smith shook the Huskers loose from first-half doldrums by coming off the bench and, in nine minutes, producing eight points, four rebounds, a block and a steal. He finished with 13 points, nine rebounds and three steals.
For many players, such performances might lead to a starting spot. Smith said he’s fine where he is.
“Me and Coach Miles had a meeting and I told him I like coming off the bench,” said the 6-foot-8, 250-pound junior from Seward County (Kan.) Community College.
“We don’t have a lot of ‘bigs.’ I can come in and have an impact on the game. So I told him I don’t mind being an energy guy. I just want to play that role.”
Though the win came with few style points, it wasn’t a surprise for a game played during a holiday break.
“This is just the state we’re in,” Miles said. “We’re a team that is going to learn slow but sure. I’m glad we hung on to win the game. I was disappointed we didn’t finish the game out.
“We’ve just got to get everybody on the same page. We’re not. But we need to get there sooner than later because it’s a huge week.”
Nebraska hosts Miami on Wednesday night in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, then goes to Omaha four days later to face Creighton.