CHICAGO — The chairs are wet in the Nebraska locker room. The water must have really been flying during the celebration after the Cornhuskers dumped Maryland 69-61 Thursday.
“I think we’re just having fun, enjoying each other, believing in each other,” Glynn Watson Jr. was saying. And why not? There’s quite the story of rejuvenation brewing in the Big Ten tournament at the moment.
Here come the Cornhuskers. All eight of them. Six scholarship players and two walk-ons. Four of the top eight scorers are not available, with three injured and one suspended. But this beleaguered battalion — losers of 11 of 13 conference games not long ago — won't go away gently. First they beat Rutgers 68-61, then Maryland 69-61. Wisconsin Friday, 70-61?
“It feels a little weird,” Watson said of looking around at such a small corps. “It feels like there’s nobody out there with us. But once the game starts, we’re good.”
So who cares that the Cornhuskers showed up in the United Center as the No. 13 seed in the tournament, with a 15-15 overall record? Or that they had won only three regular season games since Jan. 14? Or that the long, dark winter had inflamed considerable discussion about coach Tim Miles losing his job? Or that they can fit the entire healthy team in an SUV?
Or that the senior leaders of the pack — Watson and James Palmer Jr. — had better take some deep breaths during timeouts and at halftime, because that’s about the only rest either one is going to get? They both have played all 80 minutes in the first two games.
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As Miles said, “We are who we are, not who we not are.”
Palmer has been a wrecking crew, with 34 points against Rutgers and 24 against Maryland. “I’ll never know when this is my last game,” he said. “I want to go out there and play however long it takes to win.”
Watson had 11 and 19, and doesn’t expect to sit down Friday, either. “I’m not going to really think about nothing hurting until Sunday,” he said.
“We keep riding,” said Johnny Trueblood. He’s one of the walk-ons. Hit a big 3-pointer against Rutgers.
So what’s gotten into the Cornhuskers?
Said Palmer, “We really don’t have much to lose. We’re just playing as hard as we can for as long as we can.
"Our belief factor was strong.”
Added Watson, “That’s what we have to do, play with confidence and play with a chip on our shoulder.”
Actually, there was a hint of this last Sunday, when Nebraska rallied from nine points down in the final 50 seconds to force overtime, and beat Iowa 93-91. Amir Harris hit the shot that sent the game into overtime. Then he hurt his knee. Not playing this week.
“The game Sunday was great for us with momentum,” Watson said. “That set us up knowing we can do this.”
They’re trying to make up for a lot of shattered hopes. On Jan. 14, the Cornhuskers were 13-4, having just whipped Indiana in Bloomington 66-51. They wouldn’t win another game for a month.
By then, the noise was getting louder around Miles, and even now his future is uncertain.
“I just told the guys, this is a big-boy business and whatever will be will be,” he said this week. “I want to be the coach of Nebraska. I love Nebraska. The decision is out of my hands. So we just control what we can control.”
At the moment, they’re all having a blast. Even when Miles fell down, tripping over a TV wire after the Rutgers game. “I thought I was a better athlete than that. But I’m old.”
"SAFE!" @CoachMiles takes a tumble running off the floor after Nebraska basketball's Big Ten tournament win over Rutgers. Full post game reaction tonight on @Channel8ABC! For now, WATCH: pic.twitter.com/NOABVQes4A— Jared Koller (@JKollerKLKN) March 14, 2019
Even when Watson flew into a courtside camera chasing a loose ball against Maryland. Or even with all the ice baths he’s having to take, preparing to go all 40 minutes another day.
“This is my last year, I have to fight every second I’m out there,” he said. “I’m just fighting to the end, till it’s over and we take the L.”
They’ve taken a lot of those this season at Nebraska. But not lately.