It was one of those games that leave basketball purists - count coaches, players and some players' parents in that group - with eyebrows raised and patience pushed to the brink.
When Nebraska visited the University of Colorado's Coors Events Center, the undersized Cornhuskers - along with the Buffaloes, they're among the runts of the Big 12 Conference's hoops litter - nonetheless entered with the well-earned reputation of playing hard, physical and sometimes frenetically.
Aside from the frenetic part, it's a style that works for Nebraska, and CU coach Jeff Bzdelik adequately had briefed the Buffs. Still, they might not have been prepared for how the game would end - sophomore guard Cory Higgins, who trained at the IMG Academy basketball program, in particular.
For good reason, Higgins is Bzdelik's poster boy for how young players can develop through hard work, attentiveness and crunch-time grit. He's the best overall player on a CU men's team almost too young to qualify as such. He's also one of the Big 12's top free-throw shooters, having set a conference record by making 45 in a row earlier this season and making 85.5 percent overall.
So with the Buffs trailing the Cornhuskers by two points in the final 14.2 seconds, Higgins was the consensus choice in the Coors Events Center to take the ball hard to the basket, where either hitting a shot or drawing a foul and shooting two free throws would have been acceptable for a young CU team desperate to win.
Instead, Higgins was able to do neither. He drove the left lane, drew apparent contact and, while falling to the floor, missed from about 4 feet. A teammate's tip-in attempt was errant, leaving Nebraska clinging to a 55-53 victory.
Father knows best
A day later, Higgins' father, Rod, the general manager of the Charlotte Bobcats who had watched the game on television, chuckled and mentioned whistle-swallowing as an officiating malady that can surface at any level of basketball - even in a scrum such as that one.
The younger Higgins echoed what Bzdelik undoubtedly had told him: "You can't count on anybody else, so you've got to finish the play. You can't play (for) the whistle."
Chalk it up as another valuable on-court instructional session for Higgins, a relatively quiet but extraordinarily calm and talented 19-year-old whose basketball lessons began during his father's 13-year NBA playing career (seven teams) and continued as Rod Higgins moved into coaching/administrative roles in San Francisco, Washington, back in San Francisco and now in Charlotte.
His son, a lithe 6-foot-5 guard, leads the Buffs in all but three individual statistics (blocked shots, three-pointers attempted/ made, and assists - two off the lead) and is among the Big 12's best in defensive rebounds; scoring and field-goal percentage; and free-throw percentage, steals and minutes played.
"He quietly fills up the stat sheet," said Bzdelik, emphasizing "quietly."
Speak softly, play loud
Dwight Thorne II, one of CU's tri-captains (Higgins and lone senior Jermyl Jackson-Wilson are the others), seems as gregarious as Higgins is guarded. According to Thorne, few Buffs have as little to say on the court as Higgins.
"He leads by example, but that's how our leaders are," Thorne said. "I try to be more vocal myself; it's kind of our balancing act."
Bzdelik is fine with Higgins' word economy. He doesn't want any of his players adopting untrue personalities: "You can't be anybody you're not," he said.
"I've seen guys who are very quiet be great leaders by their work ethic. But my best players have to be my hardest workers. That's leadership. When I speak, Cory doesn't even blink and he stares a hole right through me.
"Others notice that. And I only have to say things once to him and it's done. That's leadership."
Higgins has been quiet for, well "always. . . . I've never talked a lot." Instead, he found "different ways to lead. That's not me (to be loud). I think guys respect me because I lead by example rather than just talking and blowing a lot of smoke."
In his final two seasons at CU, Higgins might evolve into a more vocal player/leader. But for now, he's merely being himself, just as he was at Monte Vista High School (Danville, Calif.), The IMG Academy School (Bradenton, Fla.) and in the IMG Academy basketball program - an invaluable intermediate stop for Higgins.
"The work ethic, working out twice a day . . . I gained about 15 pounds and got stronger; it made the jump from prep school to college a lot easier," he said.
Recruited by a handful of midmajor schools, Higgins appeared to be almost ready to slip away before Bzdelik got word of his availability, dispatched associate head coach Steve McClain for verification, then "immediately used my NBA contacts to get to Rod . . . I mean, real fast."
Observing the best
If Higgins developed a solid work ethic at IMG, exposure to it came much earlier.
Normally too reserved to be a name-dropper, he nevertheless can plop down some of the NBA's marquee monikers if persuaded.
Because of his father's NBA background, Cory grew up dribbling in and out of impressive shadows cast by some of the league's best players - among them Michael Jordan, Tim Hardaway, Chris Mullin and Mitch Richmond.
"Seeing those guys up close and personal, seeing how they work, how they handle themselves in pressure situations . . . all of that was invaluable for him," Rod Higgins said.
The commitment to the game he saw from those players and others made a lasting impression on Cory, telling him "what you have to do to be successful. It doesn't come easy. You have to work day in, day out."
A ball boy at more than one of his father's stops, Cory coaxed the big guys into one-on-one games.
"Before games, they would mess around with me and I actually would think I could beat them," he said. "They'd let me win."
Those pregame encounters easily led him to envision himself one day playing at their level - "but that's what any little kid would do," Higgins said.
Now, any NBA dreams are "far down the line. Even if that was a possibility, I've got to focus on the goals here. If I take care of (those), that'll put me in a situation where I want to be."
A game grows up
Rod Higgins remembers his youngest son - older son Rick played last season on the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo basketball team - taking an interest in sports shortly after he began walking. Cory liked baseball (he was a pitcher and shortstop), basketball and "was a heck of a soccer player," his father recalled.
But when Cory reached middle school, his focus turned to hoops, and a standard for what he wanted to achieve began to develop.
"He had a pretty good competitive edge to him," Rod said. "We figured whatever he decided to play, he would have the opportunity to excel . . . he wasn't afraid of failing."
From Higgins' freshman to his sophomore season at CU, Thorne has watched his pal's game evolve into one that is more aggressive in almost every aspect.
"If anybody's seen him, they know Cory gets most of his points at the free-throw line," Thorne said. "That's by design, not by mistake. He's just more aggressive in driving the basketball and his ability to finish as well.
"I expect him to be a marquee player - one of the best players in the Big 12, which he is right now."
With senior scorers Richard Roby and Marcus Hall the headliners on Bzdelik's first CU team, Higgins wasn't the go-to guy he has become this season.
"The biggest difference is I don't get the easy time on the offensive end like I did last year," he said, chuckling. "But that's allowed me to make plays for other people, like (Roby, Hall) did for me last year."
Close won't cut it
Although the Buffs have won only once in Big 12 play (1-9, 9-15), they've become much more competitive. They put serious scares into Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, losing the latter in overtime Saturday despite Higgins' career-high 34 points.
Bzdelik has told his team only good things can happen if they keep battling, and Higgins said although frustration is evident, discouragement is not.
"We've been right there, but we've just got to have that light switch turned on, and a lot of those close losses are going to turn into W's. We have to respect the game and know we can't take any plays off.
"One turnover, one loose ball, one rebound - it all adds up. If you really think like that, we're going to have a lot of those possessions back and we won't be left saying, ‘What if?' "
Added Rod Higgins: "It's easy for me or you to say, ‘Hang in there,' but it's tough for him. In my conversations with him, I've told him winning is hard at any level. But the thing with this kid is he'll stick his nose in there, get dirty and work through it.
"Anything he's ever set his mind to, he's been able to do."
What's on his mind now is winning, and Bzdelik and the Buffs are counting on it.