With five seconds to go in last week’s Big Ten tournament, Nebraska was down by three to Ohio State when Walter Pitchford headed to the line.
The defeated faces in the red-and-white jerseys bordered the lane. The Huskers had led by 18. Now it had come to this.
The strategy was clear: Make the first, then miss the second and hope to get the rebound.
Pitchford shot the first. Swish.
The second attempt took flight. Swish again. His shoulders crumbled, and he looked at the bench, lifting his hands toward his head as if to tell his coach: I didn’t mean to.
One timeout later, Nebraska, after ending the regular season by winning eight of its final nine games, had been booted in its first tournament game.
“I think that’s a mark of immaturity,” coach Tim Miles said after the game. “And not in a bad way, but just understanding how you win.”
All this is very new for Nebraska, an 11-seed in the NCAA tournament after being picked preseason to occupy the Big Ten basement. Nebraska, which plays sixth seed Baylor in the round of 64 on Friday, never has won an NCAA tournament game, going 0-6 all-time and last dancing in 1998.
“I don’t think a lot of people thought we were going to be in this position this fast,” Shavon Shields said. “I don’t think we’re really putting pressure on ourselves to win, because we weren’t a part of the program for the first hundred years or so. This is just our time in the program, and we want to put a mark on it.”
After the Huskers started conference play 1-5, Miles said he wouldn’t have bet a dollar of his own money that his squad would be here.
But the feeling surrounding the program started to change in January. Miles credits a victory over Minnesota as something of an instigator; including that game, the Huskers went 10-2 the rest of the way. Two games after topping the Gophers, Nebraska fell to eventual conference champ Michigan. But Wolverines coach John Beilein had some words for Miles afterward.
The Huskers, Beilein said, might have just as much talent as anyone.
“There are some guys that drip in your ear and tell you it’s raining,” Miles said. “They patronize you. John Beilein is not that kind of man. ... You start looking at your team a different way sometimes, because as a coach, you only see your weaknesses.”
Nebraska went from a squad that “looked like a bunch of guys trying to outscore the other team,” as Miles said, to one that owned the league’s second-best defense and ranked 30th nationally in defensive efficiency. Terran Petteway, having transferred from Texas Tech, suddenly grew into a star. The 6-6 wing failed to score in double digits just once in conference games.
A season ago, Nebraska had just five league victories. Two weeks before Selection Sunday, the Huskers played themselves onto the bubble, then recorded three consecutive victories to secure their bid.
Now, the Huskers are trying to find the right emotional balance. Petteway said the players were cracking jokes and laughing constantly on the plane and the bus. At the same time, when the team arrived in San Antonio, he had a request for his coach: Take everyone’s phone at 8 p.m.
“I don’t think they’ve been on the happy‑to‑be‑here ride,” Miles said. “I think they’re like, ‘Let’s do this, and let’s show everybody we’ve got what it takes to win.’ ”
The Huskers just want to keep this unexpected ride going a little longer.
“It’s just a great opportunity for us to rebrand our program, reinvent Husker basketball ... all of these guys bought into our program when we had what? Nothing. Just a cool gym, right?” Miles said. “The other stuff was all iron and stuff like that. A coach that talked a lot, was a little bit jumpy, good assistant coaches.
“So I commend our guys for loving that opportunity to be trailblazers and be those guys that are going to put Nebraska basketball back on the map and keep it on the map because that’s what we intend to do.”