CHICAGO – Nebraska Coach Tim Miles bounded off the floor in jubilation at the United Center without his jacket, which didn’t survive a fit of frustration during the Huskers’ third offensive possession of the game in their first-round matchup against No. 12 seed Rutgers in the Big Ten Tournament.
With the Huskers’ season on the line and just eight available players (and only seven of whom played) against the Scarlet Knights, there was no shortage of frustration on the Nebraska bench, between junior Isaiah Roby’s 0-for-7 start from the field, Nebraska’s 3-of-15 mark from behind the 3-point line and point guard Glynn Watson Jr. picking up his third foul in the first minute of the second half.
But fifth-year senior guard James Palmer Jr., who spent two seasons at Miami (FL) before transferring to Nebraska, extended his college career by at least one game by scoring a career-high 34 points, including 27 after halftime, on 9-of-19 shooting in the Huskers’ 68-61 win.
“That’s my mindset for the rest of the year,” Palmer said. “Any game can be your last and I just want to go out there and have fun.”
Palmer’s fun came at Rutgers’ expense.
He opened the second half by scoring 16 of Nebraska’s first 18 points, capped off by 11 in a row.
“I told him, this is going to be your half,” Watson said. “Just keep staying aggressive.”
Palmer made two of Nebraska’s three 3-pointers after halftime, the second of which broke the game open 55-51 amid a 15-0 run by the Huskers. Miles called a “horns” play, signaling to Palmer with his right pointer and pinky fingers raised in the air. Palmer sized up Rutgers power forward Eugene Omoruyi on a switch and nailed a three from the left wing, right in front of Nebraska’s bench, forcing Rutgers Coach Steve Pikiell to call a timeout.
“That was a big shot,” Watson said. “He knew that he had the advantage to at least get a shot off and he was feeling it so once you start feeling it and you’re going to score like that, everything else is going to be easy to you. Once he got going, we ran some actions for him to try to get him open or try to free someone else open with him with the ball so he could make a plays.
“That’s what he did, make plays.”
That’s when momentum officially switched and Pikiell’s timeout simply delayed the inevitable.
Johnny Trueblood, a senior walk-on who’s classified as a “benchwarmer” on kenpom.com since he had played just 6.5 percent of Nebraska’s available minutes before Wednesday, was thrown into a role as the Huskers’ sixth starter against Rutgers, playing 26 minutes off the bench and harassing the Scarlet Knights’ ball-handlers.
He recorded one of his game-high four steals when he knocked the ball away from Myles Johnson on the Scarlet Knights’ first possession out of the timeout and Roby, who was ice cold for most of the night, contorted his way around a pair of defenders for an acrobatic lay-in on the other end.
It was at least partial redemption after he missed what would’ve been an emphatic dunk in the game’s opening minutes, which caused Miles to walk to the other end of the team’s bench, tearing off his jacket.
“I know you’re not shooting good but I can’t take you out so you gotta stay in there,” Roby recalled Nebraska Assistant Coach Michael Lewis telling him.
Freshman Brady Heiman, a 6-11 forward, was the team’s only reserve forward who played but he was outmatched against the size of Rutgers’ frontcourt and he played just seven minutes.
“It’s kind like it’s us versus the world, really,” Roby said. “We felt like that all season but now it’s even more like that when you only got eight possible guys that play.”
Roby was stout defensively when it mattered, skying for a defensive rebound on a missed three by Caleb McConnell on Rutgers’ next possession, then swatting Omoruyi on the one after that.
“I’m glad that in the end, I got the best of them,” Roby said of his late-game defense.
When Rutgers guard Geo Baker grabbed the ball after Roby’s block, Palmer poked it away, ran the floor for an emphatic dunk and drew a Flagrant 1 foul on Omoruyi, who was in pursuit of Palmer.
Palmer missed both free throws but Nebraska made seven more in the final 90 seconds, which sealed the game with the help of an emphatic, two-handed slam by Palmer after another steal from Trueblood.
So after the final buzzer sounded, there went Miles, jogging, fist-pumping, then raising both arms like a marathoner crossing the finish line after 26.2 miles, before his foot caught an incline in the floor at the wrong angle, causing him to stumble and fall to the ground on his way to the tunnel.
After his tumble, Miles rolled over, looked up to the Husker-red crowd that he had been pointing to just seconds earlier and with an ear-to-ear grin, he made the “safe” motion, like a baseball umpire would.
Now the question is whether Miles’ future at Nebraska is also safe as his seventh season at the school nears its end, as the Huskers, which are on the outside of the NCAA Tournament picture, take a 17-15 record into their matchup Thursday against No. 5 Maryland.
“I just told the guys, you know, this is a big-boy business, and whatever will be will be,” Miles said after the game, in regards to speculation about his future at Nebraska. “I want to be the coach of Nebraska. I love Nebraska.
“The decision is out of my hands. So we just control what we can control.”
For now, all Miles and a short-handed Huskers team can control is their performance against the Terrapins, where they’ll have the chance to extend their season and Miles’ tenure by at least one more game.