With Cookie Belcher and Larry Florence coming to life for Nebraska in the second half, it didn't matter that Venson Hamilton was missing in action.
Belcher scored 10 of his 17 points in the second half and Florence scored 14 of his 16 in the last 20 minutes as Nebraska beat UNLV 68-55 on Wednesday night in the NIT's first round.
With the victory, the Huskers (20-12) improved to 14-4 in the NIT including the 1996 NIT title during Nee's 13 seasons. Nebraska is 0-6 in the NCAA tournament, including 0-5 under Nee.
"We'd much rather take our program to the next level and be in the NCAAs every year," Nee said. "But who knows? Maybe we can win again this year in the NIT. We'll sure try."
Nebraska will face Texas Christian (20-10) in the second round on Monday or Tuesday at a site and time to be announced.
On Wednesday, the Runnin' Rebels (16-13) started quickly, leading 16-8 before Nebraska climbed back and went ahead 31-29 at halftime. But it was a different game in the second half.
The Huskers scored the first 10 points with a 14-2 run during which it seemed they could do no wrong even with Big 12 player of the year Hamilton on the bench in foul trouble.
Nebraska led 45-31 with 15:21 to play after Florence lost control of the ball and almost threw it away on a fast break. Belcher, unable to make the catch, tipped it back to Florence for a layup.
Three minutes later, it got worse for the Rebels.
After Chris Richardson hit two free throws to pull UNLV within 51-38, the Huskers went on a 9-4 run. The first three Nebraska buckets during that stretch came when the Rebels couldn't inbound the ball without a turnover.
UNLV coach Bill Bayno, whose voice had turned raspy by halftime because of all his early enthusiasm, crouched silently near his seat over the last five minutes.
"Tonight's game epitomized the season, and we all take responsibility for the season," said Bayno, whose team finished with losses in six of its last eight games. "We have a lot of work to do."
Nee said the key was Nebraska's zone defense.
"They just never handled the zone," he said. "We thought about playing it all game, but we wanted to start in a man-to-man. After that first timeout, I don't think we played man-to-man again."
Belcher had five assists, and his five steals gave him 258 in his career breaking the school record of 257 by Erick Strickland from 1993-96, who now plays for the Dallas Mavericks.
"I knew if I was going to do something, I had to get active on defense," Belcher said. "I started getting some deflections and that got the team into it."
Belcher's 96 steals this year also are a school single-season record.
Hamilton, who scored nine points and collected five rebounds, blocked four shots to set a Nebraska career record for blocks with 240. The previous record of 236 was by Mikki Moore from 1994-97.
Shawn Marion led the Rebels with 18 points while Desmond Herod, who hit three 3-pointers in the first half, scored 11. Issiah Epps had 10.
Belcher agreed with Nee that the Huskers would rather play in the NCAA, win or lose, but the important thing now is that Nebraska is still alive.
"This gives us a lot of extra ball-playing for the younger guys and it keeps the seniors out so the pro scouts and the foreign scouts can see them," Belcher said.
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