PAIN: The Nebrasketball Story
Have there been exciting, fun memories? Yes! But do they all still ultimately lead to futility regarding the one thing literally every other major-conference program has achieved by now? Of course!
This is the first in a recurring series of memories of Nebraska basketball. Some will include my personal experience, while others won’t (I’m only 36). They will mostly be fun side roads along the journey of that season that came up short in a familiar or, more likely, hilariously unique way.
SIGN YOUR NAME, DOC
There is a familiar and unfortunate trivia question every long-suffering Nebrasketball follower knows: What is the only major-conference program to have never won an NCAA Tournament game? We all know the answer.
When was Nebraska’s last opportunity to even play in the big dance? It was 2014, Tim Miles’ second season as head coach, when 11th seeded Nebraska got destroyed by Baylor. Pre-Miles? That’s 1998, Tyronn Lue’s third and final season in Lincoln, when NU lost to Arkansas, also as an 11 seed.
In between ’98 and ’14, the one moment Nebraska seemed closest to getting another chance was a Saturday in 2011, ten years ago on February 19th. The Huskers hosted a top-3 opponent with a chance at THE resume boost they would need to make the dance.
On the morning of February 19, 2011, I woke up in a St. Louis suburb. I spent the night at my old college roommate’s apartment. He moved out there after college with his wife, and I hadn’t seen them since the previous year when they came back to Lincoln for either Thanksgiving or Christmas. Later that night was my oldest friend’s bachelor party. We were going to dinner at a Schlafly brewpub, then to a Blues game, before a night on the town.
We gathered at my friend’s parents’ house is Swansea, IL, not far from St. Louis, that afternoon. It was perfect timing for me, since the Texas-Nebraska game would start at 12:30. No way I was missing this game.
As a UNL student in the mid-2000s, I camped out for Kansas games in the bowels of the Devaney Center, in a sleeping bag on the concrete ground. That’s the price you had to pay for a front-row seat in the student section. It wasn’t for everyone.
Home games against ranked teams with postseason implications for Nebrasketball were rare, indeed. There was the blowout win over 12th-ranked Kansas in 2004 getting the Huskers to 14-7, but getting swept by Kansas State, Iowa State, and Colorado, none of which were tournament teams, sealed that team’s fate. In 2006 it was a January win over No. 12 Oklahoma that created a buzz, but Barry Collier’s last team could not sustain it. Both of those teams made the NIT.
Doc Sadler made a couple NITs in his first few seasons. His team did beat No. 16 Texas in February 2009 but couldn’t follow it up with anything else NCAA-worthy. Then 2009-10 was a train wreck, 2-14 in the Big 12.
Husker fans knew it was now or never in 2010-11 for Doc. That’s why that February day 10 years ago represented so much to so many beaten-down Husker hoops fans. It gave them hope.
Bachelor parties have a wide range of enjoyment for the attendees. Some are amazing, some are terrible. I came to St. Louis knowing the groom, his younger brother, and a couple of the other groomsmen. I knew we’d have a good time, but I was hesitant about the unknown. Who were these guys? Would we all get along? How would we break the ice?
A historic Nebrasketball upset, that’s how.
I was the first to arrive, saying hi and hugging my friend’s mother who I hadn’t seen in years. I made *some* polite small talk before asking for the TV remote so I could find the game.
An early Toney McCray 3-pointer got Devaney rocking. While Nebraska tied three separate times, Texas got out to as much as an 8-point lead at 20-12 with eight minutes left in the first half. After Bear Jones hit NU’s second three to cut it to 24-22, a 7-0 Texas run made it a nine-point deficit at 31-22 with two minutes before half. The Longhorns knocked down 6-of-10 from 3-point range in the first half. Jorge Brian Diaz and Brandon Richardson both scored to make it 33-26 at the break, and by then I looked up to notice a couple more groomsmen had arrived.
I introduced myself and made small talk throughout halftime. I would need to double check on their names after the game was over.
Settling in for the second half, I tried explaining just how futile Nebrasketball was to my new friends as they showed cursory interest. Also, Andre Almeida scored six points and grabbed three rebounds before the first TV timeout of the second half, and the Huskers had stormed back to take their first lead at 40-38. Texas, riding an 11-game winning streak, had not even trailed in a game in almost a month.
It was getting real.
Another friend arrived. I may have moved my hand in his direction and uttered syllables as Nebraska stormed to an 8-0 run before the next TV timeout, leading 50-42. I’m positive I was getting weird by now.
Everyone paying attention to college basketball in 2011 knew Texas had better players than Nebraska. That’s not a secret. Jordan Hamilton led the conference in made 3-pointers with 90, and shot 38.5% from long range, on his way to first-team All-Big 12 honors. Tristan Thompson was second team All-Big 12 and Freshman of the Year, leading the conference in offensive rebounds with 138, 32 more than the next best mark that season. Another forward, Gary Johnson, was third team. Another freshman, Cory Joseph, made the all-rookie team with Thompson. And Dogus Balbay was Defensive Player of the Year. Their sixth man, J’Covan Brown, averaged double figures in points and matched Hamilton’s 38.5% 3-point shooting. They finished second to Kansas in the standings, were runners-up to Kansas in the Big 12 tournament, and nabbed a 4-seed for the big dance.
Nebraska had nobody finish in the Big 12 top ten in scoring or rebounding, and only senior guard Lance Jeter landed on an all-conference squad, making the All-Big 12 third team.
None of that mattered this day. Even though Jeter was held to just six points by Balbay’s defense, and despite foul trouble also limiting Jeter to only 20 minutes, Doc’s boys found a way to keep their foot on the gas.
Jordan Hamilton, who went 2-5 from deep in the first half, shot just 1-6 on threes after the break. He still got his 18, but half of it was earned at the free throw line. He cut the lead to 50-47 with a pair at the 10:32 mark. Then Jeter, who was top-five in the Big 12 in both assists and steals, took it away from Balbay and dished one of his game-high four assists to Toney McCray for a lay-up.
When Bear Jones followed that by knocking down his second triple of the game, it extended the Husker lead to 55-47 with 9:25 left, forcing a Texas timeout. I probably cued up DMX on my Droid Bionic right there in my buddy’s living room.
As Nebrasketball forged ahead in Lincoln, the rest of the male wedding party was assembled. I was not engaged in conversation quite yet, though I remember one of the guys was genuinely interested in the game for one mid-second half segment.
Lance Jeter committed his fourth foul with 8:27 left, and he would not impact the game again until after the final media timeout. By then, Bear Jones had buried his third 3-pointer, Nebraska’s fourth and final of the game, to make it an 11-point lead. The teams traded buckets a couple times, and before I knew it, Jeter was driving the lane, getting blocked by Tristan Thompson, collecting the rebound, and getting the put back.
Nebraska 64, Texas 53. 2:38 to go. NOW I was getting the groomsmen invested in the outcome.
Nebrasketball fans have a certain fatalistic quality to them, not unlike Cubs fans before they won the 2016 World Series, or Browns fans. They not only can sense when things start to take a turn for the worse, but they also understand that things will go south. Even when it appears that all is well, they know it never is.
An 11-point lead with two minutes to go? Not even perennially inept Nebraska basketball could screw this up, right?
They damn sure tried!
First, Brandon Richardson missed the front-end of a 1-and-1. I will bet you any amount of money that I was visibly shaken by that. Especially when it was followed by Jordan Hamilton getting fouled while shooting a three. He makes them all. Eight-point game, 1:41 left.
Jorge Brian Diaz is fouled immediately and misses two free throws, leading to Hamilton burying a three. He’s scored six points in the blink of an eye.
64-59, 1:33 remaining. What was that girl-like shrieking sound? Oh yeah, that was me. These guys I just met absolutely think I’m crazy.
More free throws for NU, this time McCray makes one of two. Texas then misses twice but grabs both offensive rebounds and Hamilton is fouled. He makes the first. 65-60. Misses the second, but Alexis Wangmene gets ANOTHER offensive rebound and HE is fouled. After making the first, he also misses the second, but Gary Johnson gets a put back! Texas missed two field goals AND two free throws on the same possession…and scored four points!!
Read that last sentence again. I was probably curled up in the fetal position as Nebraska was clinging to a 65-63 lead.
Then, Wangmene steals it from McCray, and Brandon Ubel fouls him. He makes both. We are tied at 65 with 1:07 left. Texas scored 12 points in 34 seconds. Complete free-fall. I am about to have my night utterly ruined by a game the rest of these dudes didn’t even know was happening until they walked into this house less than two hours ago. Nightmare scenario.
Bright side: since Texas tied the game, they stop fouling, allowing NU to walk the ball up and play some half-court offense. Joseph fouls Brandon Richardson, who makes both to give me and the Devaney Center crowd a reason to breathe again. 67-65, 43 seconds left.
Hamilton then misses his final 3-point attempt, Drake Beranek is fouled, and he makes one of two with 30 seconds to go, inching the lead back to three at 68-65. I talk myself into thinking Nebraska could hang on and win. I was skeptical of my own thoughts, and for good reason.
Beranek then fouls Brown while shooting a three with 13 seconds left and I crash back to reality. Twice in the last two minutes?! This collapse was shaping up to be more epic than any in the pantheon of horrible Nebrasketball losses . . . which is saying something.
Brown misses the first! So he cannot tie the game from the line, though he does hit the next two. 68-67. Richardson gets the ball off the inbounds and is fouled with 8 seconds remaining. Despite missing the front-end that sparked the Longhorns’ comeback, Richardson was money down the stretch, sinking his last four free throws, including these two. It’s 70-67, Brown misses from deep, and it’s over. The radio call was great:
“THEY ARE STORMING THE FLOOR! SIGN YOUR NAME, DOC - THERE’S YOUR SIGNATURE WIN!” -Husker PxP legend Kent Pavelka
I was so happy, but also emotionally spent at 3:00 in the afternoon immediately preceding an all-night bachelor party. Mostly happy, though.
Despite the late-game attempted choke job, Doc Sadler and his scrappy bunch of Cornhuskers had done it. Snapped Texas’ 11-game win streak. Shot 47.1%, the second best mark against UT all season to that point. Out-rebounded the Big 12’s best rebounding team 39-34. Nebraska’s record was 18-8 for the first time since the 1992 squad that made the NCAA tournament, and 6-6 in league play. It was NU’s first top-3 win in 17 seasons – and with a tourney bid on the line to boot!
None of us Nebrasketball followers knew what to do. This had not happened for over a decade, this foreign concept of playing meaningful basketball games late in February. It was kind of fun, actually.
There was one problem, though – the season wasn’t over. Unlike yet-to-come 2014, when NU peaked with their No-Sit Sunday win over #8 Wisconsin in the regular season finale, there were still four more regular season games left: Kansas State at home, Iowa State in Ames, Missouri at home, and the finale at Colorado. The Big 12 tournament, Nebraska’s last before moving to the Big Ten the following season, would follow.
The Wildcats had already beaten Nebraska 69-53 in Manhattan, forcing 22 turnovers. The return game didn’t go NU’s way, either, as Jacob Pullen scored 27 in a 61-57 win at the Devaney Center. K-State would end up with a 10-6 Big 12 record and a 5 seed in the NCAA tournament.
At Iowa State, Lance Jeter hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to force overtime, part of a career-high 27-point performance. But it wasn’t enough, as the Cyclones took it 83-82, dealing a huge blow to Nebraska’s tourney hopes. ISU was only 3-13 in 2011. It was the definition of a bad loss for a bubble team.
The Huskers then avenged a January loss to Mizzou, winning 69-58 on March 1st. It was the last home Big 12 game, and it was rife with postseason implications. The Tigers were also on the bubble, but despite the late loss they went on to finish 8-8, sneaking into the field of 68 with an 11 seed.
If NU could defeat Colorado, they would match Mizzou’s 8-8 Big 12 record and grab some momentum before heading to Kansas City and the Big 8 tournament. It wasn’t meant to be, though, as the Buffaloes won comfortably, 67-57. Colorado, like Missouri, had an 8-8 conference record. But they did not make the dance, leading lists of snubs and settling for the NIT, where they made the Final Four at Madison Square Garden.
One last stand remained for the 2011 Nebraska Cornhuskers – at Kansas City’s Sprint Center and the Big 12 tournament. Maybe all they would need to do is avoid a bad loss to middling Oklahoma State in the 8-9 game to make it. Maybe they’d have to beat top seed Kansas to secure their at-large bid.
They didn’t do either, losing to Oklahoma State 53-52. It was over, the dream of dancing dashed. The NIT was not their preferred destination, and they bombed out with a 76-49 loss to the eventual NIT champion Wichita State Shockers. Ecstasy to agony in just a few short weeks.
Back on February 19th, none of that epilogue had been written yet. I was still flying high on adrenaline through dinner and the hockey game, which was a 9-3 Blues win over the Ducks. Then I made the critical decision that powered me through the rest of the night’s shenanigans: I drank a Four Loko. It was my first and only experience with the beverage, which had recently been investigated by the FDA and essentially banned in its original form. I remember being told it was a batch of the original formula – deemed “unsafe” by the FDA – but I was none-the-wiser. It smelled like a fruity Sprite but tasted like a too-strong Red Bull. It kept me awake, but not with a feeling I had experienced before or since. At the casino, I was quite paranoid that we would lose one or two guys, so I insisted on entering everyone’s cell phone number into my phone just in case. That came in handy when my cell died around 2:30 in the morning.
We all survived, though there was some alcohol-fueled fear that we were going to lose the groom, or that he and his younger brother would end up stabbed. (Bachelor parties, am I right?) The moral of the story: don’t hang out in East St. Louis at 4 a.m. All’s well that ends well, though, and we wrapped up the 24-hour experience by getting Chipotle burrito bowls before going our separate ways. The May wedding, which was lovely, had a happier ending than the 2011 season – my friend and his wife are still married with two girls.
Thankfully, that 2011 upset win over No. 3 Texas was not the only big Nebrasketball game before or since. There had been others prior, there were others between then and now, and there will undoubtedly be more to come. The end of the story of any Nebrasketball season always ends the same, but boy there are still some fun days to dream. Days that mask the pain, make it subside for a moment, help you forget that the road you are traveling will not take you to where you want to go. Someday, maybe, Nebrasketball can get us there, to an NCAA tournament win. Until then, there’s only one thing this program consistently delivers: