LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — A Nebraska team struggling with consistency showed how high it can go — and how low — all in one sitting during Sunday’s fifth-place game of the AdvoCare Invitational.
The Huskers scored 46 points in the first 14 minutes against Long Beach State while building a 21-point lead. And they started the second half by scoring the first 13 points, to go back up by 22.
Yet with three seconds left, it was a one-possession game.
NU finally pulled it out 85-80, getting 26 points, six steals and five assists from point guard Glynn Watson while overcoming foul trouble to its big men and a scary-looking ankle injury to forward Isaiah Roby.
“Our guys played great basketball for the first 15 minutes of the game, and the first five minutes of the second half,” coach Tim Miles said. “Thank goodness that was enough.”
Nebraska’s lead shrunk from 40-19 to 49-40 at halftime because of manpower issues.
Centers Jordy Tshimanga and Duby Okeke both collected three fouls early, and Roby crashed to the floor after violently twisting his left ankle 10 minutes in.
“We couldn’t get a rebound,” Miles said. “That’s where the Roby injury came into play. Our inflexibility for lineups, because our bigs couldn’t get going (and him out), was an issue.”
X-rays showed no fracture to Roby’s ankle. It was classified as a severe sprain to the normal part of the joint, which likely will sideline him at least five to seven days.
Fortunately for Nebraska (5-2), Watson zoomed around the court like a sports car and fellow guard Anton Gill kept up his role of instant offense off the bench with 16 points, including 3 of 5 3s.
Watson had two steals, a deflection and three fast-break layups in the 5 ½ minutes. He hit two of the seven straight shots NU nailed midway through the half. He dished out two assists during the 13-0 run to start the second half.
And the 6-foot junior from Chicago nailed four free throws in a row in the final 39 seconds to close the deal.
“Watson is a disruptive force,” Long Beach coach Dan Monson said. “It is so valuable to have that guy. Both of our point guards had two turnovers in the first three times they had the ball.
“We started off in that deficit because he dictated that on the defensive end.”
Watson juiced the offense, too. He made 10 of 14 shots, including 2 of 3 3s. The scoring explosion he ignited had Nebraska on pace for 131 points with five minutes to go in the first half.
That was news to him.
“I was just playing,” Watson said. “I wasn’t even looking at the score. Just playing hard, trying to build a lead and play from the front.”
NU finished with 21 assists on 32 baskets, including 17 of 21 the first half.
“Everybody on the team can score,” Watson said. “We’ve just got to find easy shots for each other. When we take tough shots, that’s when we start struggling.”
Easy shots became harder to find when Tshimanga and Okeke drew their fourth fouls in the first six minutes of the second half. Tshimanga, in plus-minus efficiency, was plus-25 even though he played 16 minutes.
With the bigs and the 6-foot-8 Roby on the bench, Long Beach (3-4) plowed inside repeatedly to rally, getting 22 points and 16 rebounds from forward Gabe Levin and 14 points and seven rebounds from forward Mason Riggins.
The 49ers cut the gap to four points with 4:58 and 2:07 left, then closed to 83-80 with 3.4 seconds left, but time ran out on a full comeback.
Of the six halves Nebraska played in the tournament, Miles said four were “phenomenal” and two were “awful,” referring to the first half of the loss Thursday to UCF and Sunday’s second half.
With five games in 18 days coming up against Boston College, No. 4 Michigan State, No. 14 Minnesota, a Creighton team receiving votes and No. 3 Kansas, soon the Huskers will find no bad halves are acceptable.
“We have to be able to self-correct when things start going bad,” Miles said. “When we find easy shots for our teammates, we’re really good. Anybody would say that.
“But that’s got to be our mentality. Sometimes, whether we get a little fatigued or whatever it might be, we aren’t able to do that for the full stretch. That’s something we’ve got to remedy.”