January 28, 2009

Huskers fall to Jayhawks in final seconds, 68-62

One more big play down the stretch or one more call by the officials that went the other way, and Nebraska just might have been able to pull off an upset over Kansas.

But just like as it's been essentially all season for the Huskers, all the bounces went in favor of the Jayhawks late in the game, as NU was once again left empty handed in a 68-62 loss Wednesday night at the Devaney Center.

Following back-to-back 3-pointers by junior guard Sek Henry with just over a minute to play, the Huskers found themselves trailing just 62-61. On the ensuing Jayhawk possession, though, junior forward Ryan Anderson was called for foul on KU's Sherron Collins along the baseline with 29.1 seconds to go.

Collins went on to hit both of his free throws to put Kansas up by three. On Nebraska's next possession, the Huskers had an inbounds play under the basket after a kicked ball with 16 seconds remaining.

The play was designed to for Henry to get the ball to Dagunduro on the opposite side of the basket, but Henry's passing lane was cutoff and he was forced to find another teammate. With the five-second inbounds clock running out, Henry threw the ball deep down court to Cookie Miller. Collins made a nice leaping steal, and was fouled by Miller and sent to line, where he added two more free throws to all but seal the win for the Jayhawks.

With the loss, Nebraska (12-7, 2-4 Big 12 Conference) has now dropped four games by six points or less, while the Jayhawks improved to 16-4 and 5-0 in the conference.

"It was another game where I couldn't be more proud of our guys," head coach Doc Sadler said. "I mean, they're giving me far more effort than any team I've ever been associated with, and that's what's so tough… "I thought again, the last five minutes of the game we had some possessions where we maybe made one or two mistakes there that we can't make.

"But how can you get mad? These guys, the mistakes they're making are effort. I mean, how many times did we dive on the floor and there's three loose balls and get a tie-up and we don't get any of them because the arrow's going the other way? At some point, it's got to turn. That's what I told the guys in there, you're giving too good of effort, and it's a coach's dream to coach them. At some point, it's got to turn and you've got to start getting a couple of breaks to go your way there at the end."

It was obvious the Huskers came to play from the opening tip, as they started the game with 6-0 run that eventually built into a 21-9 lead with 10:40 to go. Kansas finally was able to gets its feet back under it from there, as Collins carried the Jayhawks on a 12-5 spurt that cut NU's lead to 26-21 with just under 7 minutes in the half.

The Huskers bounced back with another scoring run, capped off by a 3-pointer by senior guard Paul Velander that put NU up 31-25 with 3:47 to play in the half.

However, Kansas responded with a 7-2 run to end the half, capped off by a pretty pass from Taylor underneath to Travis Releford for an easy lay-up as time expired to make the 34-29 heading into halftime

While Collins was his usual self with nine points in the first half, the Huskers took Aldrich out of the game completely. Aldrich's numbers in the first half box score read more like a bench player than one of the Big 12's best big men, as he shot 0-for-1 from the floor with no rebounds, one steal, two fouls and three turnovers.

Leading 50-48 with seven minutes remaining in the second half, Kansas broke away with an 11-1 run to take an eight-point lead with just under four minutes to go. Though it looked bleak for the Huskers, senior guard Ade Dagunduro kept them alive by scoring five straight points to bring them back to within six at 62-56 with 1 minute, 45 seconds left.

Unfortunately for the Huskers, missed opportunities down the stretch turned a potential upset victory into their fourth loss in the past five games.

"I don't know how many teams have had this many close games and still not come out with a win," said Dagunduro, who finished with a career-high 24 points. "I can't speak for the team, but me personally, I'm tired of us giving 100 percent effort and still not coming out with wins. A win is what matters. Nothing feels good (about it).

"Our mindset was that we were going to win, no matter what. We're not scared of those guys. We're not scared of anybody. We feel like we can win any game we play in, that we have a chance to beat any ball club. We definitely weren't scared. They were battling, but we were battling too, right down to the finish."

Senior Steve Harley finished with 11 points for Nebraska, while Henry added 10. Collins led the Jayhawks with a team-high 17 points, and Aldrich ended with eight points and eight rebounds - all of which coming in the second half.

Nebraska will take the road for its next contest, as it travels to take on Texas Tech on Saturday at 7 p.m. For now, the Huskers will once again try to find a way to bounce back from another heart-breaking defeat.

"Any loss with this team is going to hurt bad because they give you everything," Sadler said. "It's not like you've got a team out there that don't give you everything, and that's what makes it hurt… This team gives you everything. I mean, they give you everything they've got… It's not been a situation when we've gotten beat that we didn't give maximum effort, and at some point this team has to be rewarded for that."

Diaz officially decides to redshirt

After months of speculation over what would become of freshman center Brian Diaz this season, the 6-foot-11 Puerto Rican finally gave an answer.

Prior to Wednesday's game, Diaz told Sadler he wanted to redshirt this season because he didn't feel mentally ready or in good enough physical condition to effectively contribute to the team.

Though Sadler said he disagreed with Diaz's evaluation, he supported the decision. Diaz will now have three years to play two seasons, beginning next season.

"He just didn't think he was ready," Sadler said. "He told me that he's not in near shape that he needs to be in, and the number of plays that we're running, he said coach I just don't think that I can help the team. I told him I disagreed with him because I think he can help the team, but ultimately I didn't get him in school when I told him I was going to get him in school. I got him here late, and I'm not going to penalize him. It's nobody's fault, we just didn't get a test score."

Huskers determined not to let their spirits down

In the wake of a rough losing streak that has just seen two straight heart-breaking losses at home, Nebraska's players say they aren't about to start hanging their heads in self pitty.

"The character on this team and our senior leaders will not allow us to lack any effort no matter what," Dagunduro said. "No matter if we lose the rest of our games, until the last game in the Big 12 Tournament, we're going to give 100-percent effort."

Said Henry:

"We're always going to fight hard, because that's just in our blood. But these tough losses that we've been taking the last couple games, I mean, it's hurting us. We really want to win these games, it's just that little hump we just can't get over right now. I just have a feeling that something is going to go right. We're getting all these close games like this, and I mean it's helping us, but it hurts. It hurts a whole lot. We're going to get one of these big wins down the stretch and it's really going to help us."

Free throws plague NU once again

Just four days after shooting better than 90 percent from the free throw line on Saturday against Oklahoma State, Nebraska's struggles from the charity stripe resumed Wednesday against Kansas.

The Huskers shot just 50 percent (7-of-14) from the line in the loss, including just 6-of-11 in the second half. On the other side, Kansas connected on 19-of-27 free throws, with 15 of them coming after halftime.

"We can't shoot 50 percent at the free throw line," Sadler said. "That's probably the deciding point of the game. We go to the free throw line 14 times and they go 27 and they make 19. They out-score us 12 free throws, so we just can't overcome that."

Salomon makes most of opportunity

For the first time this season, junior guard Cole Salomon came off the bench at a time when the game actually still mattered.

In fact, the Omaha native first checked into the game at the 17:58 mark in the first half, as he finished the night with three points, three rebounds, two assists and a block in eight minutes of playing time.

Sadler said Salomon's increased role was a result of wanting to get another bigger player in the game to help rest the regular starters and provide some fresh legs down the stretch. It also had to do with his decision to move redshirt freshman guard Toney McCray - who didn't play at all on Wednesday - out on the wing to serve as more of a perimeter player.

For Salomon, who played in 20 games last season and nine games this year, the chance to take the floor early on against a team like Kansas just the opportunity he'd been waiting for.

"I've just been waiting all year to get my chance," Salomon said. "Finally Doc called on me, and I hope I just performed and helped the team… This is like my fourth time playing Kansas, so I was ready to get in there and show my stuff."

Salomon's teammates said seeing him out on the floor early in the game and contributing like he did provided a bit of extra motivation to follow his lead.

"It just gives you that extra adrenaline when you see a guy like that who works so hard in practice, but doesn't get as many opportunities some of the rest of the guys get, to see him doing well, it just boosted our whole game," Dagunduro said.

Henry regrets final inbound pass

In a span of less than five seconds, Henry went from making an inbound pass that would've brought NU to within one point with 16 seconds left to ultimately losing the game entirely.

Moments after hitting a pair of 3-pointers that brought the Huskers back to within striking distance, Henry opted not try and sneak a pass around a Kansas defender to wide-open Dagunduro under the basket.

Instead, he looked for another teammate, but no one was open. With the five-second clock running low, Henry hurled a deep pass to Miller down the court, which was stolen by KU's Collins.

"I was really looking for Ade, but the way the guy was defending me, when I was trying to pass the ball to him I didn't think it was open," Henry said. "Cookie was like my last option, and I didn't think (Collins) was going to get it, but he jumped up there and got it. I was really frustrated at that pass afterwards, because I thought that was a big play, but there ain't nothing I can do now about it."

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