INDIANAPOLIS – One last shot thudded off the back of the rim and into the hands of an Ohio State player who spiked it to the floor in celebration. The horn had sounded and Nebraska's bench was shellshocked. No one reacted. The 18-point lead was long gone, all that energy around “Nebrasketball” turned to gloom. Instead of settling the issue Friday, the Huskers walked off the floor and into a two-day wait to see if they would make their first NCAA tournament since 1998.
It only took two words to explain how they got from there to here. On a white board hanging on a wall, in the suffocating silence of the locker room, an explanation was written in green dry-erase marker.
Frustration = Losing.
“When you blow an 18-point lead, there's really no excuse for that at all,” Cornhuskers guard Terran Petteway said after the 71-67 loss in the Big Ten quarterfinals. “We had the game won. Just fell out and lost our composure and weren't together. When things were close, we weren't fighting through it together.”
So frustration = Nebraska, too. This was agony for the team wearing warmup shirts with the slogan “Us Always." Just before he spoke, Petteway sat in a chair with Beats headphones clamped over his ears and his head buried in his arms, paralyzed by the surreal circumstances. Entering this event at 19-11 overall and the fourth seed, the Cornhuskers likely needed just one win to extinguish all doubt about their NCAA tournament fate. They were ahead 48-30 with just less than 14 minutes to play and seemed assured of doing so.
Then Ohio State unleashed its full-court pressure. Nebraska took bad shots, surrendered offensive rebounds in a zone defense, and the lead eroded bit by bit until the Buckeyes went back in front with three minutes remaining. The Cornhuskers went the last 4:14 without a field goal. Now they will wait to see if they go Selection Sunday without hearing their name. It seems implausible – they finished 11-7 in a wild league, their RPI coming in was 41 and their strength of schedule ranked 30th nationally, per RealTimeRPI.com -- but it's certainly possible.
“You never know,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said as he sat in the corner of a small office off the main locker room area. “It's out of your control. You hope you've done enough and your full body of work is good enough. And I think it is. A win today, you might be a nine seed. Maybe that's a little high, but it's not much of a stretch, I don't think. But you can't win 39 minutes. It's going to be what it's going to be. I just hope it goes in our favor.”
Most of the game went in Nebraska's favor, especially during a 17-2 run to start the second half. But the Buckeyes' backcourt of Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott increased their defensive pressure and Nebraska wilted. It was shocking given that Miles had prepped his team for that all week by having his offense play five-on-six and four-on-six to simulate Ohio State's press.
“Their pressure was so good,” Miles said. “The fact that Scott and Craft got so physical up front was really advantageous for Ohio State.”
At that, Miles cleared his throat, suggesting officials afforded the Buckeyes too much leeway. He did well to stop just shy of excuse-making, which was smart because the Cornhuskers also had themselves to blame. That was never clearer than when forward Walter Pitchford grabbed an uncontested lob pass near the rim with about seven and a half minutes left – and then blew the chance by attempting to reverse dunk it. At that point the lead was down to nine and the signs of implosion were unmistakable. “We let frustration kick in, and we can't let that happen,” Pitchford said. “It's gonna burn. It hurts right now. It really hurts.”
Miles emphasized later how his team needed to learn from that feeling and then bury it. Still, the locker room afterward was a morgue. It didn't seem conceivable, but the next 48 hours might be even more agonizing for the Huskers.
“We just have to wait,” Petteway said. “It's going to be a long two days to see if we get in.”
Michigan 64, Illinois 63. According to his coach, Jordan Morgan has rolled to the rim during Michigan basketball practices thousands of time only to have the ever-loving tar smacked out of him by a team manager holding a plastic pad. It was this very same action from the Wolverines center, repeated over and over for years, that saved Michigan and its hopes for a No. 1 seed on Friday.
After a pass he didn't expect to come and on a shot he didn't expect to take, Morgan dropped in a layup with 7.9 seconds left and Michigan survived a sparkling upset bid from Illinois with a 64-63 win at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. It wasn't yet enough to boost the league's regular-season champions back to the NCAA tournament's No. 1 seed line -- two more wins might be required for that -- but the entire discussion would have been moot without a victory Friday, without Nik Stauskas coming off a screen and deciding to shoot and then changing his mind while airborne to find Morgan for a score.
“Coming out of the timeout, Nik told me he was going to shoot it regardless,” Morgan said of the Big Ten's Player of the Year. “I wasn't necessarily ready for the pass. I figured he would shoot and I was going to fight like hell for the rebound.”
When they retreated into a timeout before that go-ahead score, coach John Beilein settled on a call that might work against zone or man. (Illinois head coach John Groce went to man-to-man, and someone asked him afterward if he wished he'd stuck with the zone. “Well, I do now,” he joked.) Stauskas dribbled around a high ballscreen the same way he has countless times, rising to shoot but seeing that Morgan's man stayed right there in front of him.
And Morgan caught the ball, dropping it in as the thicket converged, just as it has every day back in Ann Arbor for years. The managers are merciless with those pads, after all. “They don't take it easy,” Morgan said.
This win did not come easily for Michigan. The Wolverines missed 20-of-30 three-pointers and Stauskas alone missed 8 of the 10 he took. But the team that was the most consistent in a wild Big Ten maintained the status quo. The No. 1 seed is in sight, and the Wolverines are ready for it. “It's a possibility, but we're not going to sit here and say we're playing for only that No. 1 seed,” Stauskas said. “We're just trying to win a championship right now. If a No. 1 seed comes out of that, great. If not, it's not going to be the end of the world for us."