CHICAGO– With just six scholarship players and two walk-ons available for its first-round matchup with Rutgers at the Big Ten Tournament on Wednesday, Nebraska needed all the toughness, grit, and resiliency it could get.
For the second game in a row, the short-handed and seemingly out-matched Huskers overcame the odds for an improbable victory, topping the Scarlet Knights 68-61 to advance to the second round on Thursday.
SeniorJames Palmer Jr.had one of his best games when his team needed him the most with a career-high 34 points, including scoring 27 in the second half alone.
The Huskers trailed for nearly 35 of the game’s 40 minutes, but a 15-0 run in the second half proved to be the difference in keeping their season alive for another day.
“It’s awesome just because a lot of people have been counting us out, especially when we lost (Isaac) Copeland and went on that losing streak,” junior forwardIsaiah Robysaid. “The season hasn’t gone exactly how we expected it to, and so people can give up on us, but we’re not going to give up ever, no matter if we’ve eight guys, six guys, or five guys. That’s kind of our team mantra.”
Nebraska missed seven of its first eight shots to open the game and quickly fell behind 12-4 out of the gates. Despite scoring just eight points over the first 10 minutes, the Huskers only trailed by two after an 8-2 run capped by aGlynn Watsonlayup with 9:21 left in the half.
Rutgers shot 52.6 percent from the field in the first half, but it couldn’t stay out of its own way with turnovers and fouls. That allowed NU to hang around and eventually get some offense going, using a 9-0 run to take its first lead of the night at 23-21 on a layup byBrady Heimanwith 1:56 remaining.
Palmer laid it in with just three seconds to go before halftime to send Nebraska into the locker room with a 26-25 lead.
The Huskers only shot 34.5 percent from the field, went 1-of-8 from 3-point range, and missed seven dunks and layups in the first half. But the Scarlet Knights kept them in it by committing 11 turnovers, 10 fouls, and missing all five of its attempts from behind the arc.
“We started off real slow, just kind of getting used to the rims and whatever,” Watson said. “We just had to calm down.”
The second half got off to a rocky start, as Rutgers scored five unanswered second-chance points to reclaim the lead and force an NU timeout after just 1:13 of play.
Palmer scored 16 of his team’s first 18 points of the second half to keep Nebraska within reach and eventually pull within 45-44 with 10 minutes to play.
“I just wanted to come out and be more aggressive in the second half,” Palmer said. “ I knew we needed some kind of spark, period; whether it was scoring or on the defensive end. I just wanted to lock in in the second half and be way more aggressive than I was in the first half.”
A dunk by Myles Johnson made it 51-46 with just under seven minutes left, but the Scarlet Knights would go scoreless over the next three minutes. That allowed Nebraska to chip away and finally reclaim the lead at 52-51 on a pair of free throws by Roby with four minutes on the clock.
A 3-pointer by Palmer put NU up 55-51 with 3:13 to play, and that rally ballooned to a whopping 15 straight points and pushed the lead up to a commanding 61-51 with just over a minute to play.
That would be all the cushion NU would need, as it ended up outscoring Rutgers 22-10 over the final 6:20.
Watson finished with 11 points and five assists in the win, while Roby added 10 points, six rebounds and four blocks. The four other members of Nebraska’s lineup only scored a combined 13 points on the night, but made up for it with 12 boards, seven steals, and four assists.
Senior walk-onJohnny Truebloodcame up huge once again, playing 26 minutes and snatching a game-high four steals with two assists and three points.
Eugene Omuruyi led Rutgers with 16 points and five assists before fouling out, while Johnson posted a double-double of 11 points and 11 boards.
Nebraska’s third meeting against Maryland will tip-off 25 minutes after the first game on Thursday between Indiana and Ohio State, which is set to start at 11:30 a.m. The Terrapins swept the regular season series over NU with a 72-71 win in College Park and then a 60-45 victory in Lincoln.
“I thought we could win this game, and I think there’s a way to win tomorrow night against Maryland,” head coachTim Milessaid. “We’re going to put our heads together and figure that out, but I trust these guys, and I’m really proud of them.”
1. Palmer’s performance was one for the ages
Palmer’s 34 points weren’t just the highest single-game total of his career, and they weren’t just the second-most points by a Husker in a conference tournament game behind Eric Piatkowski’s 42 in 1994. They were also the second-most ever by any player in Big Ten Tournament history, only trailing the 35 scored by Northwestern’s Michael Thompson in 2011. Palmer’s performance at the free-throw line, despite shooting just 63.3 percent, was one for the record books as well. His 14 made free throws were the most ever by a Husker in a league tournament game, as were his 22 attempts. Those also set Big Ten Tournament the single-game records held by Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger, who went 16-of-18 in a game back in 2011.
2. Trueblood was a hero again
For a guy who didn’t play a meaningful minute in nearly four years at Nebraska, Trueblood is sure saving his best for last. After posting by far the best game of his career in the regular-season finale against Iowa, the senior walk-on played 26 minutes and finished with three points, four rebounds, and a career-high four steals in the win over Rutgers. His final stat line wasn’t just productive, as he once again came up with play after play to help turn the course of the game for his team. Trueblood is a basketball fairytale story in a lot of ways, and his coaches and teammates are hoping there are a few more chapters left in his book.
3. Defense was the foundation
Palmer might get the majority of the headlines with his career scoring night, but it was Nebraska’s defense that kept Wednesday’s game from turning into a season-ending loss. While the Huskers struggled to do much of anything on offense for half the night, they made up for it by throwing Rutgers out of sorts with aggressive defense. Nebraska forced the Scarlet Knights into a whopping 22 turnovers, which tied for the third-most in Big Ten Tournament history. Rutgers’ 25 first-half points were also the lowest NU had allowed in a half since Northwestern had 23 back on Feb. 16. Given NU’s roster situation, at times it has to make the choice of how much energy to expend on one end of the floor or the other. It might make for some tired legs, but the Huskers’ best chance at continuing its run will be through lockdown defense.
“I am so proud of these guys, I can’t explain it. Yeah, you can’t get me to cry on that one.”
— Head coach Tim Miles on the fight and effort his team has shown the past two games.