[Jon - You might notice, we have a new writer, Pat Janssen. This is his first piece for CN. Welcome him aboard, please. Below is a short bio on Pat.]
Pat Janssen is a writer, actor and stand-up comedian shuttling between New York and Los Angeles, with stops in between to work on his documentary in Nebraska. Prior to his super lucrative comedy career, Pat spent 10 years working in broadcasting and media relations, including posts with Wayne State College, the Winston-Salem Warthogs (Class A Advanced team of the Chicago White Sox), VCU, and the Patriot League. He is a native of Auburn, Nebraska. That means his friends get to hear all about the Kelsay brothers.
Coming off the loss to Creighton, there was one prevailing question: could Nebraska basketball avoid a letdown? Not just the type of letdown that seeps in after losing to an in-state rival, but the type of in-game letdown that has plagued the team through much of the early season. The answers? No and no.
The Huskers fell to Incarnate Word, 74-73, dropping Nebraska to 5-3 on the season. The Cardinals, in the second year of their transition to Division I, moved to 6-1.
Just as it did in its previous five games, Nebraska suffered a mid-game lull, allowing Incarnate Word to hang in the contest while simultaneously flashing images of NJIT into the brains of every Husker fan. Like Michigan on Saturday, a Big Ten team was felled by a feisty team playing with noticeably more effort and poise. This one may sting the Big Ten even more so than the Highlanders' upset over the Wolverines, as NJIT at least completed its transition to the Division I level five years ago. Incarnate Word is still three years away from doing so.
Make no mistake. This is a salty bunch of Cardinals. Incarnate Word was coming off a road victory against Princeton and a closer-than-it-looked loss against Tim Floyd's UTEP squad. That will not erase the sting of this loss, or the feeling that it's a giant step backward for this team on the rise.
For the first time this season, Nebraska found itself in a halftime hole, trailing 33-32 after 20 minutes. After Miles called out his team's lack of aggression via his halftime tweet, the Huskers appeared to rectify their problems, going on a 9-0 run to take a 47-40 lead with 13:07 left. Nebraska held its largest lead of the game, 50-40, after Terran Petteway found Walter Pitchford open for three. But Incarnate Word answered with an 11-3 run of its own to force its way back into the game.
Nebraska once again appeared poised to pull away, capping an 8-0 run with a Tai Webster floater. But once again, Incarnate Word clawed back. Despite relying on the exploits of his long-range shooters for most of the night, head coach Ken Burmeister went inside late in the game with Traylin Farris, who had been in the hospital with flu-like symptoms earlier in the day. Farris scored on back-to-back possessions, pulling the Cardinals within three at 71-68 with 28 seconds to play.
Those remaining 28 seconds will forever haunt Webster, Shields and Miles. On consecutive possessions, Webster turned the ball over, and on each of those possessions, Shields' defensive assignment was fouled behind the three-point line (Parker was whistled for one of the fouls). Shawn Johnson made just four of his six free throws, but another turnover, this one by Petteway on the inbounds pass, set up the Cardinals for the biggest possession in the program's history.
Kyle Hittle, who scored a team-high 18 points, drove with the left hand on the baseline and hit a step-back jumper with 2.7 seconds remaining, giving Incarnate Word its first lead since the 18:33 mark in the second half. A desperation heave by Petteway was nowhere close. And just like that, Incarnate Word, a school desperately seeking to build its profile both academically and athletically, got the win it needed to do so.
The Huskers played without Moses Abraham, who suffered a broken hand in practice. As one of just three true big men in the regular rotation, Abraham's presence will be a necessity against larger Big Ten foes, but his absence may have been fortuitous in its own way, at least in the long term. With Abraham in the lineup, Tim Miles has regularly gone with an eight-man rotation all season. Against the Cardinals, the Huskers used nine, giving extended minutes to freshmen Jacob Hammond and Nick Fuller. Fuller, who had only played three minutes all season, was a bit of a revelation in his 13 minutes on Wednesday. Fuller tallied six points, two rebounds, two assists, and he took an important charge, sending Denzel Livingston, the Cardinals' leading scorer on the season, to the bench with his fourth foul with 12:25 left to play.
But positives will have to wait. The same problems that have been lurking in the opening stretch of the season loomed large for Nebraska on Wednesday. Outside of Terran Petteway and Shavon Shields, no one appeared comfortable taking a big shot, as the juniors again led the team in scoring with 18 and 19 points, respectively. When Benny Parker was off the court, there was no control from the point guard position. Parker had no turnovers, while Webster and freshman Tarin Smith had a combined five giveaways. Walter Pitchford's offensive woes continued, and they were compounded by mental lapses on the boards and defensively. Pitchford scored ten points, but he had two wide open misses from three-point territory and just one made free throw. He also surrendered each of Faris' big buckets down the stretch. These are not new issues. They finally caught up to the Huskers.
Nebraska has three days to put this one in the rearview mirror, as Cincinnati comes to Pinnacle Bank Arena on Saturday. As signs begin to point to what an overachievement last season was, the Huskers now suddenly find themselves back in the position of hunter instead of hunted. Maybe a return to this mentality is what Nebraska needs to be successful, but something tells me it's not how Miles envisioned it.