LINCOLN — Nebraska was highly fortunate that its point guard of the future showed up ready to play Sunday afternoon.
Freshman Glynn Watson bounced off the bench to pour in 17 points in 21 minutes, giving NU the spark to rally from an 11-point deficit and topple Rhode Island 70-67.
Does the four-star recruit who last March led his team to an Illinois state high school championship now earn a starting spot?
“I believe in my coach and my teammates,” said Watson, who hit 7 of 9 shots and added two rebounds, two assists and a steal. “I just come in and try to do my role.”
At which point four-year starter Shavon Shields, who led all scorers with 19 points, leaned into the microphone, turned to Watson with a smile and said: “Finish the game. That’s what matters.”
Nebraska (7-4) look finished several times Sunday.
The 10,681 at Pinnacle Bank Arena joined the Huskers in an extended afternoon snooze. The team fell behind by 11 points twice in the first half, and slipped behind by nine three times in the second as Rhode Island (6-4) built advantages in nearly every statistical category.
How foggy was Nebraska’s focus? In the first five minutes of the second half, each Husker starter committed a turnover.
“We were in a tough way,” NU coach Tim Miles said. “We just kept stubbing our toe over and over with turnovers. And (Rhode Island) banked in two 3s, and you’re going, ‘Holy cow!’
“It was one of those nights where you felt like, ‘Uh, oh.’ But then you also kept looking at it like, ‘But they’re not getting away from us.’”
The Huskers can thank the 6-foot, 165-pound Watson for helping keep Rhode Island close enough to claim the equivalent of an upper-division Big Ten victory.
URI, picked to finish second in the 14-team Atlantic-10, stretched its 37-32 halftime lead to 50-41. But Watson countered with a 3-pointer with 12:28 to go. The deficit got to 59-50 before Watson swished another 3 with eight minutes to go.
Then after Watson hit a free throw to cut the gap to 65-64 with 2:01 left, he combined with senior point guard Benny Parker on the play that put Nebraska ahead for the first time since the score was 18-17.
Out of a timeout, the ball went to Watson, who first looked for freshman center Michael Jacobson to slip inside. Jacobson, in his second career start, matched his career high of 11 points and added four rebounds.
With Jacobson covered and Shields on the other side as a decoy, Watson drove the lane and passed the ball out to Parker, who hadn’t made a 3-pointer in the past two games. This one went in for a 67-65 lead with 1:11 to go.
In the final 22 seconds, Watson added a basket and Shields a free throw. Rhode Island got a 3-point try to tie at the buzzer that barely grazed the rim.
“This was a little bit of a rite-of-passage game for this team,” Miles said. “We’ve been by the chalk the whole time up to now. If we’re the (under)dog, we get beat. If we’re expected to win, we win.
“I thought tonight was a tossup game, and the guys did a heck of a job finding a way to win, even though it wasn’t easy for a long, long, long time.”
Rhode Island coach Dan Hurley, who saw his team lead for more than 29 of the 40 minutes, rued the loss.
“This is obviously a tough pill to swallow,” he said. “I felt like a couple things really hurt us. Second-half turnovers, especially when they made their run.
“You know they’re going to make a run here at home with the crowd, so that was a big factor. We lost our composure, turned it over and lost our minds in terms of execution, which we have been better at this year.”
Miles’ decision in the final 6½ minutes to play point guards Watson and Parker together and ramp up the perimeter defensive pressure slammed the brakes on Rhode Island’s offense. On the Rams’ final 13 possessions, they committed five turnovers and missed 5 of 8 shots.
That late effort somewhat made up for the 28 defensive errors Miles said Nebraska committed in the first half.
So many miscues and so much time trailing could have sunk a team as young as the Huskers. But Jacobson said there was no panic.
“It’s because we’re so close as a team,” he said. “We’re really together. We all like each other. We felt if we stayed the course and had each other’s backs that good things were going to happen.”
» Coach Tim Miles said he’s undecided if he’ll move Watson into a starting role. If Watson started, Parker or junior Tai Webster would sit. “There are a lot of dynamics to that,” Miles said. “It’s a decision we have to make as time goes on. He got starter’s minutes tonight.”
» Nebraska sizzled shooting in the second half. The Huskers shot 61.1 percent from the field (11 of 18), 80 percent on 3s (4 of 5) and 75 percent from the foul line (12 of 16).
» For the eighth time in its 10 games, Rhode Island held an opponent’s leading scorer under his average. The Rams limited Nebraska wing Andrew White, averaging 17.3 points, to five shots and 11 points. White drew heavy pressure much of the day.
» Nebraska takes final exams this week, meaning practices will be scrambled before the next game, Sunday at home against Samford.