LINCOLN — “You gotta believe” is what Nebraska men’s basketball coach Tim Miles preached last week, saying his team won’t defeat favored opponents unless it thinks it can.
Another truism for success in the Big Ten: “You gotta have big-time players.”
No. 11 Ohio State has a handful and needed all of them to secure a 63-56 victory Saturday night after the Huskers slashed a 15-point deficit with 9:05 left to five points with 2:40 to go.
“I think (Ohio State) has got some guys,” Miles noted wryly. “And we’ve got some recruiting to do. I know that, too. But I still think they were ripe for the picking.”
NU (11-12, 2-8) cracked down on Ohio State forward Deshaun Thomas. The Big Ten’s leading scorer hit only 6 of 18 shots in tallying 15 points — five less than his average.
But two other Buckeyes played better than average.
Forward Lenzelle Smith Jr. scored a season-high 21 points, 11 more than his average. His 3-pointer that beat the shot clock with 5:36 left nearly knocked the wind out of the Devaney Center crowd of 10,644.
Point guard Aaron Craft, the reigning Big Ten defensive player of the year, added diversity to his game. His 14 points, six rebounds and six assists topped his norm in all three categories.
Meanwhile, Nebraska saw its top three scorers combine to shoot 11 for 38 (28.9 percent).
Still, the outcome was far better than the first three times NU faced OSU in Big Ten play — losses by 31, 34 and 26 points.
“We played better than we have,” NU guard Dylan Talley said. “But we know we can play this way. So it’s not a surprise. We’re upset we didn’t win.”
Husker fans who peruse the box score might be upset at the free-throw differential.
Ohio State made 23 of 28, Nebraska 4 of 5. But that discrepancy isn’t a shock to the Buckeyes. In their previous game, they fouled so little that Wisconsin never attempted a free throw.
“A lot of it is how you play, your style,” OSU coach Thad Matta said. “They shot 26 3s. We shot 12. We were playing two different kinds of basketball.”
Miles, asked about making five more field goals than Ohio State but 19 fewer free throws, said: “You trying to get me fined?”
“That was a huge impact on the game,” he said. “They are a very good team, and they are on the attack. And they do a great job of not fouling. So you have to credit Ohio State.”
Ohio State (17-4, 7-2) looked like it might blow things open early, jumping to a 12-3 lead while outrebounding NU 9-2.
Then Miles inserted senior center Andre Almeida, and the 6-foot-11, 340-pounder altered the game.
In 11 minutes, Almeida blocked three shots, grabbed four rebounds, scored two points and in general changed the traffic pattern in the lane. A month ago when the teams played, OSU won points in the paint 40-16. NU held a 30-26 edge Saturday.
“He was a savior,” Miles said. “It was looking bleak early in the game. When he came in, it was like a light switch came on for the entire team. The whole momentum changed.”
Nebraska bounced back from that early nine-point deficit to go up 19-17. Ohio State followed with a 13-0 run and still led by nine at half.
The margin grew to 15 at 53-38 with 9:05 left on two free throws from Craft. Still, Matta wasn’t comfortable.
“Nebraska has got the capability to get rolling on you,” he said. “You’ve got to be careful with them.”
NU closed to 58-53 with 2:40 left on two free throws from forward David Rivers, who led three double-figure scorers with 13 points. But the Huskers missed five shots on their next two possessions.
Miles said he hopes his team goes forward with the feeling that “we can play with these guys, we can get over the top.”
“It was very close,” he said. “But it wasn’t meant to be. It was a good learning experience to understand the mentality you need to play with every night out.”
NOTES: Freshman center Sergej Vucetic (minor knee strain) didn’t dress but should be ready for Saturday’s home game against Penn State. Nebraska has a midweek bye after playing 10 games in 32 days. ... The Huskers’ 38-33 advantage in rebounding marked just the second time in 10 Big Ten games they held an edge in that category.
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