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Nebrasketball: A Look Back At Nebraska’s Best March Madness Run-Part 1

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If we are being honest, the Cornhuskers don’t have much to look back on for happiness when it comes to March Madness. At least one season’s run stands above the rest, though.

Danny Nee

You are all familiar with the unfortunate fact the Nebraska Cornhusker’s Men’s Basketball team does not have much success in March Madness. Over the course of their history, they have only made the NCAA Tournament seven times, going 0-7 in the first round. In the National Invitation Tournament, they have made 19 total appearances, going 24-18 in the NIT for a 57.1% winning record. However, they have only made the quarterfinals four times. As for celebrating conference banners, they haven’t been hanging one at the season’s end in March since 1950, and haven’t won a conference tournament except for once in 1994.

So what really is there to celebrate with that record? Well, it just so happens the Huskers have one post-season run they can look back on with particular pride when it comes to actual hardware. That happens to be the 1996 NIT tournament when Nebraska managed to turn around a 17-14 season record that included a nine game losing streak, and dropping 10 of their last 11 games, to instead limp into the NIT and win out the five games it takes to claim the title in Madison Square Garden. Hell, if you’re the Texas Longhorns, you might even try and pretend like an NIT title means you are National Champions! Sheesh, you’d think they’re 1997 Michigan Football or something.

Getting back on topic from my MICHIGAN SUCKS tangent, this two part series will take a look back at the best post-season run Nebraska has had in March Madness because, frankly, what else do we have to talk about that is fun right now and why not look back at the 90’s if you’re a millennial/Nebraska fan?!

In all seriousness, though, the 1995-1996 Cornhusker squad is perhaps the hands down most frustrating “what if” of all the teams to play over the years in Lincoln. It was one of the most talented teams assembled on the court. Erick Strickland, Tyronn Lue, and Mikki Moore were all eventual draft picks in the NBA. Jaron Boone, Terrance Badgett, and Venson Hamilton are all also still in various all time top ten records at Nebraska. However, it was a collision of personalities that Coach Nee couldn’t quite control. One era of Husker Hoops molded with another, for one season. One frustratingly, unforgettable season.

UNL was 15-4 overall, and 3-1 in conference after beating Missouri on Jan. 24. Then they started their slide to end the season at 4-10 in conference play. After a ten point loss to Iowa State Feb. 3, the team proceeded to get into a shouting match with Coach Nee and each other in the locker room that could be heard by reporters in the hallway. Two days later, nine players started boycotting practice to try and get Coach Nee fired before the AD told them to get back in the gym. How did this all end up? Well, with the Huskers managing their only successful March tournament run to get a banner in their history.

So without further ado, let’s dive into it.

First Round: Colorado State Rams, Moby Arena, Fort Collins, CO

Nebraska opened up NIT play on the road following a 62-60 loss to the Iowa State Cyclones in the first round (quarter-finals) of the Big 8 Conference Tournament. The Rams entered this game at 18-11 following their 71-69 Western Athletic Conference tournament loss to Utah.

Erick Strickland scored 19 points and Jaron Boone added 15 in this 91-83 win.

DelMonte Madison led Colorado State with 21 points. Nebraska shot 64% in the second half, and held Rams scoring leader David Evans to just 9 points, and just 2 in the second half when Nebraska had a 52-38 scoring advantage.

Second Round: Washington State Cougars, BDC, Lincoln, NE

A raucous crowd of 9,037 Huskers made sure the visiting Cougs would leave in disappointment. Washington State met a physical game they weren’t used to, and certainly had more than a few words to say about it after. As for the game, they committed a season-high 22 turnovers, shot a season-low 42.9 percent from the free-throw line, and fouled out three players.

Nebraska got the win in this one based in large part on their play down low. Four of NU’s first eight baskets came on dunks, and the Huskers shot almost 60 percent, going 19-for-32 from the field. The physical play down low also lured the Cougars into foul trouble.

WSU, shorthanded down low already because backup forward Cameron Johnson missed the trip due to a family illness, then lost starting forward Carlos Daniel and his backup, Tavares Mack, to fouls within a 98-second span inside the final three minutes of the game. Starting guard Shamon Antrum then fouled out with 33 second remaining.

“It was a little bit different than what we’re used to in the Pac-10,” senior Senior forward Mark Hendrickson said. “Not that we haven’t played any physical teams, but it’s a matter of what exactly the refs allow you to do.
“In the Pac-10, you get refs that on certain occasions call real touchy fouls, but then on other occasions let you play. So I think maybe that was a little bit difficult for us to figure out - exactly what was allowed and what wasn’t.”

Both teams made it a physical game from the opening tip, though, and they kept the intensity dial turned up all the way for the full 40 minutes of this one. WSU managed to gain a modest 18-15 lead in the first 8 minutes, but proceeded to hit a 4-minute scoring drought that saw Nebraska strike to take a 25-18 lead.

The Huskers kept the pressure on and pushed their lead out to 47-37 at halftime. Coming out of the locker room they then held off a methodical WSU comeback in the second half.

The Cougars pulled the score to a one point game at 73-71 on a put-back by Fontaine with 3:30 remaining. Then disaster struck for WSU when their personal foul counts came home to roost.

Daniel and Mack fouled out, the Huskers hit 3 of 4 free throw attempts, and backup point guard Tom Wald got a shot to fall on a drive to the basket, ending the Cougars’ comeback.

Washington State got 21 points from Isaac Fontaine, 11 from Shamon Antrum, and 10 each from Carlos Daniel and Tavares Mack. Meanwhile Strickland led the Huskers with 18 points. Garner scored 16 points, and Badgett added 12.

Quarter Finals: Fresno State Bulldogs, Selland Arena, Fresno, CA

Nebraska had to once again take to the road for this one. If I spent another hour trying to find a recap to actually learn anything about this game beyond the final score, perhaps I could haven actually found one. However, these are not the easiest thing to locate and I simply have run out of time and energy to track it down after having to struggle to do so with the first two round games. The Huskers got a big upset on the road, and downed the Fresno Bulldogs 83-71 to punch their ticket to New York City. This was their third trip to the Semi-final round, and their first since 1987. The 1987 trip would see a 82-75 loss to Southern Miss, but this time it will have a happier ending than a third place consolation game win.

There you have it for part one of this look back at Nebraska’s sole March Madness title run in the post-season. We will have part two for you looking back at their final wins next wee.