NORMAN, Okla. - It's amazing what having the leading candidate for the national player of the year award can do for a team.
On Wednesday, Oklahoma benefited from that luxury to the fullest, as sophomore sensation Blake Griffin went off for a game-high 27 points and 18 rebounds to help the Sooners hold off Nebraska 72-61 at Lloyd Noble Center.
Junior guard Ryan Anderson led the Huskers with 19 points and seven rebounds, while senior Steve Harley followed with 11 points and junior Sek Henry added 10.
"They're just a good basketball team, and we made some mistakes, they hung around, and when they got the opportunity to make some plays, they made them," NU head coach Doc Sadler said. "That's what a team that's ranked whatever they're ranked is supposed to do."
After senior guard [db]Paul Velander hit a 3-pointer to tie the game at 53-53 with 8 minutes, 25 seconds left in the game, the Sooners broke away with an 11-2 run to go up 64-55 with 1:21 to play.
From there, the game was all but over, as Griffin and his older brother, senior Taylor Griffin, scored OU's last eight points in final minute to make the score seem a little worse than the game actually was when time expired.
All together, Griffin racked up 16 points and 11 rebounds in the second half alone, as his presence inside proved to be too much for the Huskers to handle down the stretch.
"Our defense wasn't nearly as good as it's been, but that's because of Blake Griffin," Sadler said. "You've got to pay so much attention to him, and he got a lot of touches right there in the middle of the lane, and that's difficult to stop. Then they had a couple guys (Austin Johnson and Tony Crocker) step up and make some 3-pointers, and they made 27 points.
"When you get 27 points from 3s and you've got a guy like (Griffin) in there, then, you know, what do you do? Do you stop him or do you hope they miss some shots?"
After watching the Sooners jump out to a 6-0 lead on a pair of 3-pointers to open the game, Nebraska settled in and had about as good of a first half it could've asked for.
Offensively, the Huskers shot a red-hot 50 percent from the field in the first half, including hitting 6-of-10 from beyond the arc. Anderson seemingly couldn't miss in the opening half, as he scored 17 of his career-high 19 points and was 4-of-7 from 3-point range in the first half.
The Huskers were not only able to dig themselves out of their early hole, they actually jumped all over the Sooners to the tune of a 14-7 run late in the first half that put them up by six and eventually up 38-32 going into the halftime.
However, it didn't take very long for Oklahoma to chip away at the lead in the second half. With Nebraska leading 46-44 with just 12 minutes to play, the Sooners reclaimed the lead on a 3-pointer by Omar Leary followed by a big blocked shot and ensuing dunk by Griffin to go up 49-46.
After that, Griffin and Co. took full control of the game, as the Huskers fell to 12-5 overall and 2-2 in the Big 12 Conference. On the other side, Oklahoma (18-1, 4-0) became the first team in the country to reach 18 wins on the season.
Despite the frustrating loss, Sadler said he was proud of the way his team competed against one of the country's top teams on the road in a hostile environment. The Huskers will look to get back on the winning track with a pair of home games, with the next coming on Saturday against Oklahoma State.
"Our guys fought, man," Sadler said. "Our guys fought hard. I think for some of you guys that saw this team for the first time, I think you realized that this basketball team we've got plays hard, and we've got a chance to be competitive."
OU's Griffin lives up to all the hype
Want to know the biggest difference between Nebraska's success in the first and second halves? Two words: Blake Griffin.
As noted earlier, Griffin essentially took the game over on both ends of the floor in the second half, racking up the majority of his impressive numbers after halftime.
Along with his 27 points and 18 rebounds, the Oklahoma City native added three blocks, two steals and two assists. Of his 18 rebounds, 15 came on the defensive end.
"I'd like to have somebody like that," Sadler said. "He's nothing more than I thought he was going to be. I mean, he is a great player. Any time you're mentioned as being one or two or three or whatever, you mention him being the player of the year, you know, that's pretty good. He's a load."
After the game, the Huskers said the biggest reason why Griffin was able to have such a breakout performance in the second half was because they stopped trapping him as aggressively when he got the ball on defense. As a result, he was able to get position down low and convert easy lay-ups and take advantage of his height advantage over the smaller NU lineup.
"The second half, we didn't trap Blake Griffin like we were supposed to, so we didn't execute on defense like Coach wanted us to, and you seen the outcome," sophomore guard Cookie Miller said. "We've got to trap him before he even touches the ball, because we he touches the ball it's like a 90-percent shot right there. He's a good player
We had them, but like I said, a couple plays down the stretch and not trapping him, it really hurt us. He made plays down the stretch, and it hurt us."
Anderson said the Huskers were well aware that the Sooners were looking to get the ball to Griffin on every possession I the second half. The problem was Nebraska couldn't do anything to stop them from doing it.
"It just seemed like they went to him every time down, and we couldn't stop them," Anderson said. "It was either a foul or a lay-up or an open 3."
Anderson's career night goes to waste
There was probably no bigger reason for Nebraska's near perfect first half than the play of Anderson. Though he all but disappeared completely in the second half, Anderson seemingly couldn't miss to open the game.
He scored 17 of his career-high 19 points in the first half, highlighted by four 3-pointers that helped the Huskers break away early and take a six-point lead into halftime.
As nice as his numbers in the final box score might have looked, they didn't mean a thing for Anderson because they didn't help the Huskers get a victory.
"I'm frustrated, man," Anderson said. "It's meaningless if we don't win. I don't care. You know what I mean? I'm a winner. I want to win, and my teammates want to win. No matter if I shoot good, and like I get mine and I get my points, I want to win. If I had zero points and eight rebounds and a couple assists and we win, then I'm happy."
As expected, Diaz sits out first game as a Husker
Though there was some question whether Sadler would opt to throw 6-foot-11 freshman center Brian Diaz into the fire against Griffin and the Sooners on Wednesday, the Puerto Rico native stayed on the bench in warm-ups all night.
Sadler said he has yet to sit down and talk with Diaz about his future this season, but after evaluating him in practice yesterday and watching him shoot in the pre-game, Sadler felt Diaz simply wasn't ready yet get his first taste of Big 12 basketball.
"We just went through shooting, and he's not ready," Sadler said. "I mean, he's not ready. I don't know. We've got a lot of work to do with him before he gets ready."
Sadler said earlier in the week that he expected to have a conversation with Diaz about playing or redshirting this season on Friday or Saturday, meaning he still might see the court this year.
Free throws play big role in NU loss
One of the most disappointing stats for Sadler after Wednesday's game was Nebraska's 5-of-14 (35.7 percent) performance from the free throw line. In contrast, Oklahoma shot 13-of-21 (61.9 percent) from the line.
In a game that decided by 11 points, leaving nine essentially free points on the floor was a hard pill to swallow for Sadler.
"As I told the team (in the locker room), if you don't shoot free throws better than 5-for-14 on the road, then you're not going to beat a good basketball team," Sadler said. "That's what we shot. I think if we would've shot free throws a little bit better we would've had a chance."
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