However, things wouldn’t go so easy as the visiting Cornhuskers fought to stay in a game that wasn’t settled until senior guard Corey Simms’ three point heave from the left wing fell just short at the buzzer giving Kansas an ugly 59-57 win.
“That was too close man,” said Kansas senior guard Michael Lee following the game. “You can’t let another team have a shot to win it in your own house, the only I’ll take from that game is that we won. Nothing else was good about that.”
From the outset it looked like it might be a long night for the Jayhawk offense as they struggled with turnovers and missed shots early. It wasn’t until 15:11 remained in the first half that freshman Sasha Kaun connected off the glass to draw Kansas to within 6-2 and spark a 12-2 run by wings J.R. Giddens and Alex Galindo as the Jayhawks raced out to a 14-8 lead with 9:47 remaining.
However, with senior big man Wayne Simien -- who finished with a team high 12 points and seven rebounds -- riding the bench thanks to two early fouls, Kansas struggled to maintain any offensive continuity in a first half. At the half, the Jayhawks starters had only scored 7 points and as a team they had made only 36% (9-25 FG) of their shots. Luckily for them, Nebraska was just as cold from the field and could only build a 24-21 halftime advantage on 34.8% (8-23) shooting from the field.
“I think Nebraska did a good job of controlling the tempo, especially in the first half,” said senior point guard Aaron Miles. “In the second half we tried to speed up the tempo and push it and we got some good looks. It seemed like in spurts we’d play good and I’d look up and we were only up four or five points. They did a good job of staying poised.”
As Miles pointed out, Kansas came out looking to force the tempo in the second half and went on a 12-0 run during the first 4:57 of the half as they seemingly took control with a 33-24 lead. Simien appeared to be getting things rolling inside as he scored five quick points and grabbed five rebounds during the stretch.
“If we say we played bad that would take credit away from Nebraska so they made us play bad, give Nebraska credit,” said head coach Bill Self. “We actually played one good stretch and that was probably the first five minutes of the second half.
“We played with more energy, we ran and we pushed it, something we didn’t do at all during the first half. We got stops and we rebounded the ball there for a stretch primarily because Dub (Simien) was in the game. That was about the only highlight as far as numerous possessions for us, we didn’t have many good back to back to back possessions, that was the only stretch.”
Just when it looked like Kansas would run Nebraska out of the gym the Jayhawks shooting woes came back as Nebraska slowly worked their way back into the game. Sophomore big man Wes Wilkinson (16 points, five rebounds) and freshman guard Joe McCray -- who scored a game high 19 points -- hit just enough shots and grabbed enough rebounds to keep the Cornhuskers in the game.
At one point McCray and Lee became entangled in front of the Nebraska bench resulting in a double technical with 5:25 remaining. McCray who had been fouled initially on the play toed the line and knocked home to huge free throws to cut the Kansas lead to 50-45 and give his team hope.
Perhaps more key to the Huskers hope than McCray’s big shots was the fact that Kansas routinely shot itself in the foot. For the game Kansas made only 13-28 free throws and the woeful free throw shooting combined with an inability to keep Nebraska off the boards -- where the Huskers enjoyed a 43-36 advantage -- enabled the Huskers to hang in the game until Simms last second jumper fell short saving a Kansas victory.
“That all comes from being focused and being ready and being alert and we weren’t that tonight,” said Self. “It’s a collective thing but I think it all starts with the mindset and approach.”
With the win Kansas improved to 14-0 as they prepare to head off to Philadelphia this weekend to play Villanova.
Although he and his teammates will take the victory, Lee couldn’t help but feel the Jayhawks were lucky to escape with a victory.
“I don’t like to say that (lucky), but whenever you give another team a shot to win it in your own house that’s not good,” finished Lee. “That shot falls, we lose. So I guess that’s luck.
“We got the win, but we’ve got to do some things better as a team. We’ve got to be more consistent rebounding, more consistent making free throws and we’ve got to put teams away when we get them on the ropes.”