For the most part, Nebraska did exactly what it needed to do defensively to give itself a chance to knock off No. 19 Arizona State. Unfortunately, it did anything but offensively.
The Huskers shot just 28.9 percent from the field and committed 14 turnovers in a 64-44 loss on the road to the Sun Devils on Sunday in Tempe, Ariz., marking their first defeat of the season.
Senior guard Steve Harley scored a team-high 11 points in the loss, an was the only NU player to score in double figures. At one point in the second half, the Huskers went more than 6-and-a-half minutes with scoring a single point.
"I think anytime you play against a team like Arizona State, their main defense is they're going to make you score from the perimeter," head coach Doc Sadler said on his post-game radio show. "But we still have to get the basketball inside. We continue to talk about this every day and after every ball game, but today we had to pay a price for not doing it. Whether or not you score or not, the ball has to go inside, and it didn't until very late in the ball game. Therefore, you're just living and dying with perimeter jump shots."
It was a sluggish start for both teams, as neither team was able to establish any sort of offensive consistency until late in the first half. Coming into the game, the Huskers' knew ASU's 3-2 zone defense could present some problems, a they've struggled with thteir half-court offense all season.
But from the opening tip, it was clear Nebraska would struggle with the Sun Devils' zone all day. The good news was that NU was able to keep the game close by shutting down ASU's potent off, particularly sophomore guard James Harden, who came into the contest averaging more than 27 points per game.
With the Huskers leading just 16-15 with 5:42 left in the half, Arizona State finally got hot and pieced together a 13-2 run to close the half and go into the locker room with a 30-18 advantage.
While Harden was kept relatively in check with just six points and one field goal in the first half, the Sun Devils' run was sparked by a pair of 3-pointers by sophomore guard Ty Abbott. Both Abbott and sophomore forward Rihards Kuksiks led the way for ASU with 10 points in the opening half, while Harley led NU with eight.
In the second half, the Huskers were able to cut the deficit to 32-24 on 3-pointer by junior guard Ryan Anderson and three free throws by Harley. But as they did in the first half, the Sun D evils quickly answered with another big run to break open their lead, this time a 14-5 spurt highlighted by a dunk by Harden.
From there, it was all ASU. Harden finally got hot, as he scored 14 of his game-high 20 points in the second half, while Abbott finished with 15 behind three 3-pointers. Unable to find any sort of rhythm from the floor offensively, the Huskers trailed by as much as 21 in the final minute of the game before finally ending with a 64-44 defeat.
All together, Arizona State out-rebounded NU 37-25, including seven offensive boards that led to 12 second-chance points.
"I thought our effort on defense was as good as it could be," Sadler said. "You take away a couple of baskets late, and you held them probably under 60 points. If you go on the road any year against a top-25 team, which they are, and hold them to under 60 points, then you should feel like you have a chance to win the game. Offensively, we've just got to figure out some things to help us get some easy baskets. We weren't able to get into our press because we didn't make jump shots. We've been getting 20 turnovers a game, and today we (forced) 12 turnovers. That's not enough for us."
Sadler said the root of Nebraska's offensive struggles on Sunday came from its inability to get the ball inside, whether it be to a player in the post or driving in off the dribble.
"I think we have to understand that it's not about making or missing shots, it's about getting it in there. If you shoot it, you shoot it, and if you don't, you don't. At least you know the defense is going to be a little bit softer
The fact of the matter is offense is what makes the game go. If you score points, it gives you a chance to get into your best defense. If you don't score points, you're not in your best defense, nor are you in your best offense."
The Huskers will try to regroup before their next game, when they travel to take on another Pac-10 opponent on the road in Oregon State on Saturday, Dec. 13.
"I think our effort and our defense, we're not going to get much better in those areas," Sadler said. "We've got to continue to work offensively. We're just not a good offensive team right now."
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