A new smaller lineup by South Dakota was put to the test, and then some, by a much taller Big 12 Conference foe.
And though there were times USD showed it could hang around, that height disparity was indeed too much.
Keyed by a 46-24 edge in points in the paint, Nebraska held off a new-look USD team 76-68 in the season opener on Friday night in Lincoln, NE.
Though the Coyotes trailed by double digits for most of the second half, they were never really out of the game – despite the significant disparity on the glass.
"We're a little undersized, and we got hurt on the boards with that, but we can get that done," USD head coach Dave Boots said. "This group can rebound. They don't have to take a backseat and make excuses that we're too small to go play people.
"This is one of the biggest teams we'll play all year."
Playing with four guards on the court for the majority of the time, the Coyotes did what they could to battle a Husker lineup that boasted heights of 6-9, 6-10 and 6-11.
It was the 6-11 Andre Almeida that especially caused USD problems, as he scored 20 points off the bench. In all, the Huskers got a combined 40 points from its three main post players.
"We had guys playing the four spot that were just a little smaller," said USD junior Charlie Westbrook, who scored a game-high 24 points in his first action with the team. "We do that to be smaller and more athletic, but they're just a little taller.
"We banged; I thought we played hard."
Down only five points at halftime, the Coyotes had a string of three straight turnovers to start the first half, giving the Huskers fast-break opportunities. USD was forced to foul and Nebraska connected on seven free throws to extend the lead – one they would not surrender.
"We can't be a team that turns it over like we did in that situation," Boots said. "We just ended up with only 13 (turnovers), but those three really got the game where they were comfortable with it."
Yet, the final three minutes were anything but comfortable for the Huskers and the Bob Devaney Sports Center crowd of 5,162.
Senior point guard Kendall Cutler hit a layup with 2:57 left to trim the Nebraska lead to 74-63, and sophomore reserve Jordan Boots followed with a three-pointer at the 1:28 mark.
After a USD timeout, the Huskers turned the ball over, giving the Coyotes a serious chance to turn the tides.
But yet another turnover by the visitors halted that opportunity and the Huskers converted two free throws to put the game away.
"In the second half, we came out a little sluggish, had some quick turnovers, and they pushed the lead to 11 or 12," said Cutler, who finished with 10 points and three assists. "But it didn't really get much out of hand. We made our run back and forth to cut it down."
The Coyotes were not helped by their shooting performance, especially a 7-of-30 clip on three-pointers.
"We hung in there, but didn't shoot it near as well as I know we can; they got out on our guys really tough," Boots said.
In the first half, at least, the Coyotes showed they could hang with the Huskers even when the shots weren't falling – especially from deep.
On its first four trips down the court, Nebraska went turnover, missed shot, air-ball and turnover. Yet, USD wasn't able to capitalize.
A pair of free throws by Jake Thomas at the 15:10 mark put the Coyotes up 7-4, but seven straight points by the Huskers gave the hosts an 11-4 cushion.
A layup and two subsequent free throws by Westbrook tied the game at 14 with 9:14 left in the half, and another Westbrook basket tied things at 16 two minutes later. Nebraska, however, used its size advantage to take a 28-21 lead – its biggest at that point.
A three-pointer by Steve Tecker at the 2:16 mark cut the deficit to 30-27, but Nebraska responded with a pair of long-range shots. A basket by freshman Trevor Gruis with under five seconds left sent USD into halftime only down 36-31.
"Pretty much the entire first half, we were getting a lot of open shots, but we just weren't knocking them down," Cutler said. "In the second half, they realized who our shooters are and got out on them and made them put it on the floor."
Saying his team took "questionable shots" in the first half, Boots said he felt the Coyotes played too fast right away.
"It's a new team that has to figure that out," he said. "The more games we play, the quicker we'll get that figured out."
Aside from Westbrook's 24 points and the 10 from Cutler, USD got 11 points off the bench from Jordan Boots. Other then that, the next leading scorer was freshman reserve Steve Tecker (6) and transfer forward Ricardo Andreotti (7).
With the tallest starter – Andreotti – at 6-8, the Coyotes got in quick foul trouble. As a result, the Huskers hit 19-of-21 free throws, with most coming at that early stretch in the second half.
"We just got beat up on the boards a little bit, but that'll happen," said Westbrook, a transfer from Iowa Western Community College. "We just have to fix that."
Though they hung tough with the Huskers, the loss – if nothing else – proved that the Coyotes can hang with teams much taller than them, according to coach Boots.
"Right now it's the first game of a season, and we have 30 of them this year," he said. "Hopefully we'll make a small step after tonight, watch some tape and go from there."
NEBRASKA 76, S. DAKOTA 68
S. DAKOTA (0-1)
Andreotti 3-5 1-2 7, Westbrook 10-17 2-3 24, L. Krogman 0-6 0-0 0, Cutler 3-7 4-4 10, Thomas 1-10 2-2 5, Bouie 0-1 0-0 0, Tecker 2-5 1-2 6, Boots 3-7 2-3 11, J. Krogman 0-1 0-0 0, Krutwig 0-0 0-0 0, Gruis 2-3 1-2 5. Totals 24-62 13-18 68.
Ubel 4-9 2-3 10, Diaz 4-8 0-0 8, Gallegos 0-3 0-0 0, Walker 0-4 3-4 3, Jeter 1-4 6-6 8, McCray 2-4 2-2 7, Jones 1-3 0-0 3, Richardson 0-4 2-2 2, Standhardinger 4-8 2-2 10, Brown 0-0 0-0 0, Beranek 2-3 0-0 5, Almeida 9-12 2-2 20. Totals 27-62 19-21 76.
3-Point Goals—S. Dakota 7-30 (Boots 3-6, Westbrook 2-4, Tecker 1-4, Thomas 1-8, Cutler 0-1, J. Krogman 0-1, Andreotti 0-1, L. Krogman 0-5), Nebraska 3-14 (McCray 1-2, Beranek 1-2, Jones 1-3, Standhardinger 0-1, Jeter 0-1, Walker 0-1, Gallegos 0-1, Richardson 0-3).
Rebounds—S. Dakota 31 (Gruis 6), Nebraska 44 (Almeida, McCray 7). Assists—S. Dakota 10 (Cutler, Thomas 3), Nebraska 17 (Jeter 4).
Total Fouls—S. Dakota 18, Nebraska 12. A—8,528.