INDIANAPOLIS -- They learned the joy of college basketball in Nebraska this season. Friday, they also learned how fickle it can be. This one had to be a blow, from Scottsbluff to South Sioux City.
With 13:45 left in their Big Ten tournament quarterfinal Friday, Nebraska led Ohio State 48-30. This would do it, right? This would be the ninth victory in 10 games, and the last piece of evidence the committee needed to invite the Cornhuskers. It had been 16 years since Nebraska was last in the NCAA tournament, but deliverance was at hand.
And suddenly, then it wasn’t. Ohio State won 71-67. Maybe it was fatal to Cornhusker NCAA hopes, maybe not. The damage will not be known until Sunday evening. No bubble team anywhere this weekend might take a more devastating hit.
“This is going to burn for two days,” Walter Pitchford said afterward, in a Nebraska locker room that was as quiet as a midday cornfield near Lincoln.
The Cornhuskers are still 19-12. They still won the most league games at Nebraska since 1966. They still own victories against Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin.
“I think we’re a tournament team and I think we’re a good enough team to win the tournament,” coach Tim Miles said. “Just look at our body of work.”
But it would have been such a better look had the Cornhuskers not melted into a puddle of mistakes. From that 48-30 lead, they had seven turnovers and missed 13 of 18 shots the last 13 ½ minutes. Ohio State, ramping up the defense, blew past.
“We just kind of fell apart, which is really embarrassing on our part,” Shavon Shields said. “Unacceptable.”
What a basketball winter it has been in Nebraska. Doug McDermott and Creighton would be exhilarating enough for the state. But then there is what’s been going on in Lincoln. Nebraska isn’t supposed to get this excited about the Cornhuskers without a good I-back. But everything had changed.
These are the numbers of state falling in love with a new team, and a new game. Nebraska averaged 15,419 fans at home. Three years ago, the average crowd was 9,395. Miles has 61,156 Twitter followers to his account at last check. He has been known to tweet at halftime.
Mike Peltz has scored one point all season, but became a nationally known Cornhusker and got a statewide hug this week after he proposed to his girlfriend on senior day.
All was happiness, all was smiles. Until the 13:45 point Friday.
Miles said it wasn’t that his players felt the pressure of having the NCAA committee looking over their shoulders.
“They didn’t play like they did, until Ohio State pressured us.’’
Pitchford had a thought.
“We just let the frustration kick in, and you can’t let that happen. When you let that happen, you’re screwed.”
Miles is trying to build a championship program at Nebraska. Somewhere on that learning curve is figuring out how to survive games such as this one. That seldom comes without some pain.
“I thought our inexperience of not being in a game of that magnitude, that high caliber, where you’ve just got to fight it out, definitely hurt us,” he said. “Hopefully it’s something we don’t recreate. Hopefully it’s not a symptom of something that is a larger problem. It was one of those experiences we weren’t quite ready for.”
So now all of Nebraska waits for two days. Miles pondered what to do with his shattered team. Getting together Saturday for practice was an option.
“The child psychologist takes the kid in the sandbox and they get the Tonka trucks out,” he said. “We put them in the gym and get a ball. We need a little salve on these wounds. So we’ll probably try to kill a day doing that. Like shoot for 11 hours.”
And maybe try to forget Friday as soon as possible?
“I’m Catholic,” Miles said. “We’re not putting this behind us, we’re going to live in it for awhile.”
They will back home, too. It’s another lesson for the new basketball faithful. March can hurt when you care.