LINCOLN — The Nebraska men's basketball team is taking this learning-how-to-win business seriously.
The Huskers, despite being a Vegas underdog again Monday night, improved to 6-1 — that's halfway to matching last season's win total — with a workmanlike 63-51 disposal of USC in front of 8,491 boisterous fans at the Devaney Center.
One VIP (very important prospect) also attended.
Two rows behind the NU bench sat Tai Webster, a four-star point guard oral commitment from New Zealand. Former Husker star and nine-year NBA player Erick Strickland just happened to sit a few seats away.
Nebraska coach Tim Miles said he couldn't comment on Webster's status, which means no signed letter of intent has come from the expected cornerstone of the 2013 recruiting class.
The Red Zone student section did its part, waving a New Zealand flag and chanting, “We want Webster! We want Webster!” As the 6-foot-3, 185-pounder walked to the locker room at game's end, he responded with a big smile and a thumbs up.
Nebraska deserved a similar salute after using an 11-3 run at the end of the first half to take a 33-25 lead, and then an 11-2 jump to start the second half. USC went 10Ĺ minutes without a field goal as NU pulled away.
Miles wryly responded when asked why those offensive outbursts occurred.
“We threw passes to our teammates,” he said.
In the nine possessions before the first run, Nebraska committed seven of its season-high 15 turnovers. That coincided with USC building its biggest lead at 18-14.
After picking white jerseys to pass the ball to, the Huskers figured out the white jersey to find most regularly was worn by Ray Gallegos.
The junior guard scored 11 points in the final 3:53 of the first half, then added three 3-pointers in the second half. One of those bombs produced Nebraska's biggest lead at 52-32 with 10:07 to play.
Gallegos hit a career-high six 3s and matched his career high of 20 points set last Tuesday at Wake Forest.
“Ray was quiet the first half of the first half,” said NU wing Dylan Talley, who scored 14 points. “He came alive at the end of the first half, and we just rode his wave.”
Speaking of waves, one of confidence is becoming noticeable around the team.
Nebraska enters Thursday's home game against No. 16 Creighton after back-to-back thumpings of power conference foes. The other was 79-63 at Wake Forest.
Wake Forest and USC, despite their names, won't be mistaken this season for Duke and Kentucky. Still, for a team picked to finish last in the Big Ten, Nebraska likes its early trajectory.
“Everybody is starting to play better,” Talley said. “We're just starting to click a lot better than we were before.”
“We have an energy about us and believe in ourselves,” said senior Brandon Ubel, who had nine points, seven rebounds, four assists and no turnovers while facing 7-foot NBA prospect Dewayne Dedmon (two points, six rebounds).
“Coach Miles believes in us and has unbelievable energy. That doesn't fade. From Day One to now, he's had the same high level of energy that he's always had, and we feed off that. And when you win, that helps out, too.”
USC's Kevin O'Neill, who has 33 years of coaching experience in college and the NBA, noticed NU's togetherness.
“Nebraska is playing good basketball and has veteran players,” O'Neill said. “They are playing well together. I commend them.”
Miles isn't claiming any breakthrough yet for a team that got 23 of 24 votes for last place in the Big Ten preseason poll.
“We're just trying to be the best we can be,” he said. “We know what everybody expected. And that hasn't changed. We aren't picked any higher in the Big Ten.
“So we just have to keep going out and proving that we're not that team. We're ourselves. We're the Huskers of 2012-13, and we've got to find a way to win every game.”
Ľ Notes: Husker guard Benny Parker started despite getting hit in head in practice. His time was limited, though, after spraining his foot in the first half. ... Freshman Shavon Shields (elbow surgery) played for just the second time, and scored his first college basket. ... Among the NBA scouts in attendance was former Creighton coach Tony Barone. He works for the Memphis Grizzlies.
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