It wasn’t pretty, and maybe that’s how it had to be.
After staggering away from Illinois with a loss and scuffling through an ugly first half that had 15,859 fans in Pinnacle Bank Arena on edge, the Nebraska men’s basketball team returned to its gritty roots to knock off Indiana 66-57 Tuesday night and set up a monster season finale Sunday against Penn State.
“At halftime we talked about playing with confidence. I’m like, 'Guys, nobody’s game has changed in three weeks. What’s changed is the circumstance, and you should embrace that,'” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said. “And that’s kind of what an upstart has to do. They have to win a game like this to gain that confidence.”
These upstart Huskers kept their postseason dreams alive by using a 10-0 run midway through the second half to go in front, then closed by hitting nine of their final 14 shots to put away an Indiana team that had won four games in a row.
The victory improved the Huskers to 21-9 overall and 12-5 in Big Ten play. The 12 wins tie a program record for most conference victories in a season. Nebraska also tied the school record for home wins by improving to 15-1 at PBA.
You have to look for a while to find the other two Nebraska teams that had a dozen conference wins in the program’s 122-year history. They were the 1965-66 squad in the Big Eight and the 1915-16 team in the Missouri Valley Conference.
It was ugly, but it was what was needed — a victory in February to keep NU's NCAA Tournament hopes afloat.
“You’re cruising along, you’re winning, you beat Maryland even though you’re a little tight, then all of a sudden you drop one and it’s kind of like, ‘Oh boy,’” Miles said. “And you just can’t play like it’s ‘Oh boy’. You have to play like, ‘I know this is going to go our way.' But you don’t do that until you’ve earned it.
“And that was kind of like tonight. One of those nights where I think they earned victory, and hopefully that can help them build that belief that we can beat anybody.”
James Palmer scored 11 of his game-high 15 points in the second half, and added four rebounds and three assists to lead the Huskers. Isaac Copeland added 13 points, while Isaiah Roby finished with 11 points and nine boards.
Senior guard Evan Taylor finished with seven points, seven rebounds, two assists, two blocked shots and a steal, including five points in Nebraska’s 10-0 second-half run.
“We were struggling offensively, and like I’ve said, I just try to go out every night and do what I’ve got to do for us to win,” Taylor said. “Whether that’s bring energy defensively or try to get baskets. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
Leading 56-53 with 4:30 left, Nebraska scored the next eight points to take control. Indiana’s only four points over the last 4 minutes, 30 seconds came on a Robert Johnson layup with 1:35 left and a Devonte Green jumper at the buzzer.
Johnson and Justin Smith each scored 16 points to lead Indiana (16-13, 9-8), which saw its four-game winning streak end.
The Huskers overcame a brutal offensive first half to get the win.
Indiana was content to give the Huskers open threes in the first 20 minutes, and Nebraska was more than happy to fire away.
The Huskers had scoring droughts of 3:19 and 3:18, and made one field goal over the last four minutes of the half.
By the halftime buzzer, Nebraska was 3-for-15 from three-point range, 11-for-35 overall, had exactly zero free-throw attempts and had guards Glynn Watson and Palmer on the bench with two fouls each.
After making four of its first seven shots, Nebraska went 7-for-28 the rest of the way with 14 of the shot attempts coming from three-point range.
Throw in seven turnovers, including four on their first six possessions, and the Huskers had a half to forget.
But their defense kept them in it.
“Sunday (against Illinois) we didn’t perform that well defensively. And that’s our identity as a team, so tonight it was a point of emphasis to get stops,” Taylor said. “Over the day we prepared for the game, we put the emphasis on getting stops, and that’s what we did.”
Nebraska closes the regular season Sunday with a home game against Penn State. It’s a game with massive implications for both teams. A chance for a historic day at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
The Huskers’ toughness Tuesday got them that chance.