Photo by Michael G. Brown Photography

Huskers Take Care Of Business Against Cowboys

By Brian Rosenthal

Sioux Falls, S.D. – Nebraska basketball players expecting a sleepy, nonpartisan crowd for a neutral site game encountered a surprise Sunday night.

Nebraska fans, both local to Sioux Falls and those who traveled, accounted for about 95 percent of the cozy crowd of 3,800 at the 5-year-old Sanford Pentagon, and coach Tim Miles believes that may have caught his players off-guard, at first.

“I think you could see it by our body language early in the game,” Miles said, noting his players began pressing harder in an environment that resembled a high school state tournament game.

Perhaps that explains why the Huskers had a difficult time gaining separation from an Oklahoma State team that entered the game with a 4-5 record. Not only that, the Cowboys led by seven points late in the first half.

“It’s like you’re trying to break a horse and they’re chomping on the bit,” Miles said, “but not really taking it.”

Finally, a late second-half surge gave Nebraska life, and the Huskers did what good teams should do against lesser competition – they extended the lead and gave Oklahoma State no hope.

Isaac Copeland Jr., James Palmer Jr. and Glynn Watson Jr. hit 3-pointers on each of Nebraska’s final three possessions of the first half, the Huskers forced two shot-clock violations in that stretch, and they overcame their biggest deficit en route to a 79-56 victory.

“This meant a lot,” Copeland said. “This was bigger than basketball tonight. Coach Miles is from here; he didn’t talk about it much, but we all knew it was in the back of his mind he didn’t want to lose at home.”

Miles, a native of Doland, South Dakota, played with his 87-year-old mother, 92-year-old father and other family members in attendance.

Since the Sanford Pentagon opened in 2013, it’s hosted an annual game between two Power 5 Conference teams. This was Oklahoma State's second trip here, as the Cowboys bested Minnesota 62-60 in the 2015 game. The venue is known for its throwback appeal, complete with a dark parquet court and scoreboards that show only the score, with an analog clock. Take a walk through the corridors and you’ll see paraphernalia for the South Dakota High School Basketball Hall of Fame, including a cutout picture of former Husker Eric Piatkowski in his blue Rapid City High School jersey. Even Miles’ Doland Wheelers is among a long list of schools, etched in a board, that no longer exist or have consolidated.

Nebraska’s proximity to Sioux Falls compared to Oklahoma State’s, plus the large amount of Nebraska fans already living in South Dakota made for a rowdy, pro-Husker atmosphere.

“It was an exciting crowd – basically a home game for us,” Palmer said. “Nebraska fans really came out tonight and supported us.”

Palmer led Nebraska (9-2) with 29 points, and Copeland scored 16. Sophomore guard Thomas Allen, who found himself in the hospital for a few hours on Wednesday because of a nasty flu bug, scored 14 points off the bench, as sophomore Nana Akenten made his first career start.

Allen wasn’t even sure on Saturday night he would travel but rode up early Sunday morning with a Nebraska staff member.

“Tom, to be able to come in, understand the defensive game plan and what’s going on, I think you saw in him what we saw in the recruiting process,” Miles said. “Sometimes he’s kind of the fifth Beatle. He did a great job tonight, made huge baskets.”

Miles pulled Allen with about 12 minutes remaining, much to the disappointment of Allen, who told Miles he was fine.

“I’m like, ‘No, you’re coming out,” Miles said, “or you’ll need an IV.’ ”

Allen did indeed return and logged 27 minutes. His 3-pointer with 8:08 remaining pushed Nebraska’s lead to 16, the biggest it had been to that point.

“Thomas showed he’s got heart,” Palmer said. “He played good tonight.”

Oklahoma State can best be described as a young, streaky team that’s played the nation's fifth-toughest schedule, according to CBS Sports. The Cowboys defeated Memphis and then-No. 19 LSU but entered Sunday on a three-game losing skid, including a neutral-site loss to Minnesota but in Minneapolis. The Cowboys played a tight, aggressive defense similar to Illinois – their coach, Mike Boynton, assisted for then-Oklahoma State coach Brad Underwood for one season before Underwood left for Illinois.

That led to a slow offensive start for Nebraska, which was playing its first game in eight days, while Oklahoma State asserted itself on the boards early and often. The game initially resembled another neutral-court game this season for Nebraska – a 70-52 loss in Kansas City to Texas Tech.

“I think the guys felt that, what you felt, ‘Is this Texas Tech all over again?’ But they were able to overcome that,” Miles said. “We got stronger as the game went on … maybe vented it out. You saw them bickering a little bit. Our timeouts were … fun, exciting.”

Nebraska also dominated in the 3-point game, going 8-of-18 from the arc while holding Oklahoma State, a 41.6-percent shooting team on 3-pointers, to 2-of-15 shooting.

Leading 32-30 at halftime, Nebraska scored six of its first eight points in the second half at the free-throw line, including two technical foul shots by Watson to begin the half after officials slapped Boynton with a technical at the end of the first half.

Allen also had a steal and layup in that stretch, and Isaiah Roby completed a three-point play to push the margin to double digits, 43-32. Only briefly did the Cowboys cut the lead back to single digits before Nebraska pulled away.

“I thought our guys did a good job because they performed better as the game went on,” Miles said. “They were able to extend the lead, and I think that means a lot. They never let Oklahoma State back in the game.”

Reach Brian at brosenthal@huskers.com or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.

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