LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Nebraska men’s basketball on Thursday traveled to the happiest place on Earth and put on one of its sadder first-half performances in years.
The Huskers gave up 19 straight points, went scoreless for 7:31, got outshot 57.7 percent to 25 percent, fell behind by 18, turned the ball over nine times, yet still had a sniff at pulling out their first-round game in the AdvoCare Invitational on the Disney/ESPN properties.
But UCF hung on for the 68-59 victory, leaving NU (3-2) wondering what might have been if it hadn’t frozen in place for long stretches of the first 20 minutes.
“You just can’t have a dry spell like that,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said. “You have to keep competing hard, and we did not. Just play hard enough. Just play with great energy.
“You can’t be sensitive to if the ball goes in the hole. You have to be able to win on those nights when the ball doesn’t go in. We built too big of a hole.”
Nebraska built a 10-8 lead before winter set in.
Over the next 7-1/2 minutes, UCF outscored Nebraska 19-0 to go up 27-10. The lead got to double digits the first time on two free throws from a technical called on Miles for complaining about a lack of traveling calls.
After the Huskers finally broke the drought on a layup from guard James Palmer, NU went empty for three more possessions, making the tally from that stretch 16 possessions, two points, one field goal, four turnovers and 12 missed shots.
“We couldn’t get to the line,” Miles said, “and we couldn’t get to the rim.”
Credit for a fair amount of that goes to UCF, which was No. 1 nationally last season in field-goal defense. The Knights could challenge for that title again with the help of 7-foot-6, 295-pound center Tacko Fall.
In his first start of the season after missing two games with a hip injury, the junior from Senegal scored 11 points, grabbed eight rebounds, blocked four shots and, by a reporter’s count, affected at least seven other shots.
Nebraska shot 34.4 percent, including 28.6 percent from the 3-point line. That’s the fourth time in five games NU has shot 40 percent or worse overall.
“Tacko is an air-traffic control guy, seeing everything in front of him and deciding when to go,” Miles said. “We didn’t handle it well the first half, but it was better the second.”
Good enough, actually, to cause UCF (4-0) some anxious moments.
Nebraska, down by double digits since the 10:10 mark of the first half, finally got the deficit to single digits — 49-41 — on Palmer’s 3-pointer with 6:39 to play.
Palmer, who scored 20 of his game-high 22 points in the second half, got NU within six points for a third time at 53-47 with a runner in the lane with 3:35 to play. Nebraska got a defensive stop and drew a foul, but center Jordy Tshimanga missed the front end of a one-and-one.
When UCF’s AJ Davis followed with a 3-pointer with 2:48 to go, the Husker comeback was blunted.
“We’ve got to keep playing,” Palmer said, “and try to put a full game together.”
Point guard Glynn Watson posted 11 points, seven assists, four rebounds and four steals. But none of that wiped the frown off his face brought on by the early 7½-minute drought.
“We just didn’t execute the first half,” Watson said. “We weren’t being aggressive. We just settled for shots and turned the ball over. Not every night is everybody going to make shots. We have to help each other get easy shots.”
UCF coach Johnny Dawkins said he was well aware Nebraska had averaged 76.5 points a game and shot 31.5 free throws a game.
“We knew defensively we had to be at our best,” the former Duke star said. “I think our guys were. We played terrific defense most of the night. That gave us a chance to beat a good basketball team.”
The Knights held NU to 59 points and 13 free-throw attempts. They also stymied the Huskers’ Isaac Copeland and Anton Gill, holding them to 13 combined points after they’d scored 46 the previous game.
Miles said he sees progress, but also noted that five newcomers in the playing rotation can lead to some irregular performances.
“You can practice all you want,” he said. “But until you’re under stress — you have an opponent, you have an opposing crowd, you have officials, you have a scoreboard — you don’t find out what guys have in their tank. And we’re still figuring that out.”
Nebraska will face Marist (0-4), from Poughkeepsie, New York, in a consolation bracket game Friday at 6 p.m. CST.
Nebraska vs. Marist
When: 6 p.m. Friday
Where: Orlando, Florida
Radio: 1600 AM, 105.5 FM