KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Chris Beard pointed to the end of Texas Tech's first half in the Red Raiders' Tuesday night win over Nebraska in the championship of the Hall of Fame Classic.
The game was tied at 26. Both teams were tired, the Texas Tech coach said. He didn't want to call a timeout.
His players responded. Texas Tech outscored Nebraska 6-0 in the last 1:25, getting buckets on three straight possessions while stopping the Huskers three straight times on defense.
"I started to see a little bit of the mental toughness that we have to have, not to win, but to survive, in the Big 12," Beard said. "I thought our guys were pretty mentally tough. I thought our guys were just as tired as them, and we made a few more plays during that stretch. I was really pleased with the mental toughness in that stretch when we were physically tired," Beard said.
If Nebraska is to win and survive, not only in the Big Ten but in the gantlet of the toughest tests remaining on its nonconference schedule, the Huskers would do well to learn from the lesson delivered to them by their old conference foe.
Texas Tech, like Nebraska, didn't shoot great. The Red Raiders, like the Huskers, had to overcome plays and situations that didn't go their way. But Tech responded when things got tight while NU couldn't find an answer.
"I think we’re a casual team. I think there’s no doubt," Nebraska coach Tim Miles said after the game. "So I think practice habits, and you work hard in practice to farm that out of them. But really, without opportunity in a high-level, conference-type game against a high-, high-quality opponent that’s so well-coached, it’s so hard to recreate it in practice."
Things had come easy for Nebraska in its first four games. The accolades were piling up as the Huskers dispatched four less-talented squads.
But against a team of similar ability, Tuesday looked a lot like the disappointing losses of last season that kept NU from getting into the NCAA Tournament.
"We lost. So, I mean, we failed the test," senior forward Isaac Copeland said. "But … it's early in the semester. We've got another big game coming up on Monday (at Clemson), and we can't look past our next game Saturday. So go out and play hard there, make (Western Illinois) feel like we feel now, then get ready for the next test on Monday."
Nebraska is still a highly skilled team with the potential on any night to beat most any team it runs up against. But when things are a grind — like they were against Texas Tech, like they will be deep in the dark of winter in Big Ten play — perhaps the biggest unanswered question is whether the Huskers can get out of their own way.
"What I find in teams over the years, when you’re in a grind-it-out game like this, if your offense isn’t going well, sometimes it’s hard to keep your enthusiasm, and you let your offense or lack thereof affect your play. And I thought that happened tonight," Miles said. "I just thought we got frustrated and looked like a bunch of mopes out there, as Coach Mo (Jim Molinari) calls them. We just kind of get disappointed, it looks like. And you’ve just got to fight, you know?"
Nebraska was outscored 34-18 in points in the paint, 19-8 in points off turnovers and 10-3 on second-chance points (it was 9-0 late into the second half). The Huskers lost the rebounding battle 38-29. Those are tangible ways to measure a largely intangible part of basketball.
An opening 13-4 salvo by Nebraska wasn't sustainable. And once Texas Tech settled in, the Red Raiders' toughness, however one chooses to define it, won the day.
Nebraska, in its toughest tests, will have to define its own version of toughness if the breakthrough season so many expect is to come to fruition. If the Huskers follow Texas Tech's example, that definition will always be in question.
"We always kind of question our toughness. We question our physical toughness and our mental," Beard said. I though tonight physically we made some big plays against an athletic Big Ten team."