Tim Miles gazed up at the scoreboard with a distinct smile on his face.
It was a look neither the Nebraska men’s basketball team nor its fans have seen in three weeks. The coach and his players had finally won their first Big Ten Conference game of the season.
After dropping their last five consecutive matches, the Huskers defeated Penn State 68-64 on the road to improve to 1-5 in conference play this season and 10-9 overall.
Freshman guard Shavon Shields led the offensive forefront with a career-high 29 points, while senior guard Ray Gallegos and senior forward Brandon Ubel notched 15 and 12 points, respectively.
The three top scorers anchored Nebraska to its first victory since its 68-59 trump on Dec. 29 against Nicholls State.
“It’s never easy to go on the road and get a win, especially in conference,” Ubel said after the first game he played in nearly two weeks. “The fact that we could get our first win on the road, and now we’re coming back home — we definitely got some good confidence.”
Going into Saturday’s match, Nebraska and Penn State resembled each other in several ways, including their two last-place positions in the conference standings and injured senior players.
Penn State was hit with staggering news when senior guard Tim Frazier suffered a season-ending injury in November. The absence of the team’s leading scorer through three games (21.7 points) has resulted to a 0-6 record (8-10 overall) in conference play.
Fortunately for the Huskers, its injured player, Ubel, would be back on the court after just two games.
The senior forward’s presence proved valuable as he went on to sink a total 12 points, with half coming from free-throws. Penn State, which entered the matinee leading the conference in free throws, shot just 62.5 percent (15-for-24) Saturday, including five consecutive missed free throws late in the game.
Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said the Nittany Lion’s inability to execute on foul shots played a vital role in his team’s loss.
“You have to shoot a high clip because getting to the foul line is difficult in this league,” he said. “When you get there you have to convert.”
Nebraska finished with a perfect showing from the foul line, nailing all 16 attempts, including an 8-for-8 showing by Shields.
Although freshman guards also led the team with six turnovers, Miles said he was more than pleased with the numbers Shields put up on offense.
“He just keeps getting better and better,” the coach said. “I think I told him the other day that there’s no ceiling here, there’s no ceiling. Don’t just be happy with 18 or whatever it might be because the sky’s the limit.”
Shields finished the first half sinking all of his seven attempted field goals successfully and continued the hot streak ending with a 10-for-11 showing from the floor. His near-perfect performance is one shy of a Husker freshman record, which was set by Tyron Lue when he made 30 points against Oregon in the 1995-96 season.
Miles said he only sees Shields improving from Saturday’s game through the rest of his collegiate career. The guard was awarded the Big Ten Freshman of the Week honor Monday for his star-studded performance against Penn State.
“You got a great opportunity here to build this program right with us, and he’s got a chance to be really, really good player. Tonight was critical and he was huge. I think he’s just going to get better and better,” Miles said.
And if the Huskers hope to build on their latest victory, they are going to need a couple more stellar performances by Shields and his teammates.
After its first road win in over a month, Nebraska will return home to host Illinois (14-5, 1-4). In their last matchup (Feb. 18, 2012), the Huskers shot 55.6 percent from the floor en route to an 80-57 win. The Feb. 18 matchup still stands as the highest shooting percentage put on by the Huskers in conference play since its inauguration in 2011.
Although the Huskers embarrassed the Fighting Illini with its best marginal victory last season, the home team knows it can’t downplay its opponents on Tuesday night, Ubel said.
“That was definitely a fun game but this is a different team this year for both of us,” the senior forward said. “Obviously, we both have new coaches, new styles, a few new players — so it’s definitely going to be different.”