El Paso, Texas - Not even a career night from Ray Gallegos could help Nebraska overcome a sluggish offensive start, as the Huskers fell to UTEP, 68-52, in the championship game of the WestStar Bank Don Haskins Sun Bowl Invitational Sunday evening.
Gallegos finished with a career-high 22 points on 9-of-15 shooting to lead all scorers, but Nebraska dug too deep of hole in the opening half minutes against the Miners, who improved to 6-5 on the season and snapped Nebraska's two-game win streak.
One night after scoring the first 10 points against Central Michigan, Nebraska missed its first seven shots and had three turnovers in the first 10 possessions, allowing UTEP to get off to a quick start. The Miners hit five of their first seven field goal attempts, including a trio of 3-pointers, to wrestle control early.
Konnor Tucker keyed the early surge for the hosts, as he scored all eight of his first half points in the first four minutes, as UTEP took a 13-0 lead in the first 3:37 of the contest. Tucker finished with 17 points, including 5-of-7 from 3-point range, to earn tournament MVP honors, while Jacques Streeter also added 17 for UTEP, which has won three of its last four since Tucker returned from injury this week.
The Huskers, who fell to 8-4 on the season, were hurt by cold shooting, going without a field goal for a pair of six-minute stretches in the first half. NU went just 6-of-27 from the floor in the opening 20 minutes, as UTEP built a commanding 36-16 advantage. The Miners, on the other hand, hit 5-of-7 from 3-point range in the opening 20 minutes as part of a 48 percent shooting half.
Nebraska went scoreless for the first 6:29 until a basket by Mike Peltz broke the extended cold spell and trailed 15-2 before Gallegos connected on two straight jumpers to pull NU within eight at 15-7. Nebraska, which hit just four of 16 shots from the paint in the first half, hung around and was within 22-13 after an Andre Almeida put back, but another extended scoring drought put the visitors in a hole. The Huskers did not hit a field goal for the final 6:40 of the first half, as UTEP closed the first stanza on a 14-1 run. Streeter had eight of his 11 first-half points in the right, including a back-breaking four-point play as the shot clock expired.
In the second half, Nebraska found a better offensive tempo, hitting 52 percent from the field and began to claw back behind the play of Gallegos. The junior from Salt Lake City posted his third 20-point effort of the season by scoring 17 of the Huskers' 36 second-half points.
Nebraska trailed 56-36 before Gallegos and Ubel, who finished with 11 points and six rebounds, led the Huskers on the comeback trail. The pair combined for 11 straight Husker points before Almeida's baseline jumper capped a 13-4 run and made it 60-49 with 3:27 left.
That would be as close as the Huskers got in the second half, as Tucker quickly changed the momentum by hitting a long 3-pointer on the next possession to stretch the lead back to 14. Nebraska got to within 12 on two occasions, the last being a Gallegos free throw that made it 64-52 with 2:00 left, but Streeter scored the final four points to give UTEP its first Sun Bowl Invitational title since 2010.
The Huskers return to action next Saturday, Dec. 29, as they take wrap up non-conference play against McNeese State. Tipoff is slated for 2 p.m. and at the Devaney Center and tickets are available by calling 800-8-BIGRED or by visiting Huskers.com.
Nebraska Coach Tim Miles
On UTEP's fast start
You have to give UTEP credit. They were energized with their leader back (UTEP Coach Tim Floyd missed Saturday's game because of illness). You have to credit him for being with his team. The energy level was really good by the Miners, and Tucker was so good early. He made really good plays for his team. Our guys got a couple of good looks, but missed them, and pretty soon you are looking up at the scoreboard and you are in a 13-0 hole and you are just chipping away. It does not take much of an error to dig that hole deeper.
On the offensive changes in the second half
We changed our lineup a little bit, and I thought we had a better tempo to our offense so we weren't hung out to dry at the end of possessions
On Ray Gallegos
I think Ray was great the second half and did a marvelous job. UTEP, by design, will try to eliminate two of your best scorers, and they denied him catches and tried to limit his opportunities. It takes a special player to get free of that stuff. It takes a while to adjust, and I thought Ray did a nice job of that in the second half.
On playing in the UTEP Tournament
I come for two reasons. First, it's the admiration for Don Haskins and what he did and UTEP basketball. That was been something I grew more fond of when I was at Colorado State, and they told the old WAC stories. I still hear about the year that UTEP won the national championship that someone hit a halfcourt shot to win a league game at Moby Arena. It means something for me to come down here and honor that tradition. Second of all, it is great for the community, and I really appreciate not only competition, but also the hospitality that (Team Chairman) Barry Kobren and his associates on the committee do. It truly is a first-class event.