Huskers’ hopes for NCAA tournament bid suffer crushing blow after loss to Michigan

Huskers’ hopes for NCAA tournament bid suffer crushing blow after loss to Michigan
Michigan guard Jordan Poole goes to the basket against Nebraska forward Isaiah Roby, left, and guard Thomas Allen in the first half Friday at Madison Square Garden. (The Associated Press)

NEW YORK — Over the years, Nebraska basketball fans have become all-too-familiar with a website called NIT Bracketology.

It’s time to call up that old friend again after what happened in Friday’s quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament.

Under the heading “a bad day to have a bad day,’’ NU missed 19 of 20 shots in one first-half stretch, fell behind by 18 points after 17 minutes and never recovered in a 77-58 loss to No. 15 Michigan.

It looked a lot like the first time the two teams met, only in reverse. On Jan. 18, NU rolled the Wolverines 72-52.

Friday’s outcome in front of about 10,000 fans at Madison Square Garden almost certainly ended NCAA tournament hopes for the Huskers (22-10), who came in with an RPI of 59 and only six wins over teams with winning records.

That’s not stopping coach Tim Miles, though, from trying to keep hope flickering instead of acknowledging the school’s 18th NIT trip is around the corner.

“I believe we’re an NCAA tournament team,” Miles said. “I believe we’ve done enough. Now, today was a bad time not to play your best. Michigan made us play that way.

“But when I look at what we’ve done, I don’t think one game undoes what we’ve done all season.”

More arguments dispute that rationale than favor it.

Nebraska, in the national spotlight as the quintessential bubble team with high expectations, looked nothing like the squad that won eight of its past nine and finished tied for fourth in the Big Ten at 13-5.

The Huskers shot a season-low 23.3 percent (7 of 30) in the first half and recorded zero assists. They finished with only five assists on 16 baskets for the game.

They also might have broken the clicker used to record mistakes on defensive switches.

“They kind of got us confused,” said NU forward Isaiah Roby, who had 16 points and seven rebounds, but was among those scorched by Michigan forward Moritz Wagner’s 20 points and 13 rebounds.

“We didn’t know exactly when to switch. So their coach did a good job of putting us in positions like that to have to make a tough decision.”

Nebraska took a 9-5 lead in the first four minutes then missed its next 11 shots before backup guard Thomas Allen hit a short jumper. Eight more consecutive misses left NU trailing 33-15 with 2:53 to go in the half.

“Michigan locks in and we get really sensitive offensively,” Miles said. “You saw that with our guys’ body language. The frustration set in.”

Still, the Huskers cut the gap to 34-24 at halftime, then got within  40-33 with 14:01 to play on a free throw from guard James Palmer, who also had 16 points. But Michigan (26-7) rebuilt its lead to 16 points over its next six possessions and never felt threatened again.

“They just beat us,” said point guard Glynn Watson, Nebraska’s other double-figure scorer with 10. “We started off too slow and it hurt us. And we didn’t execute the way we should have on defense at all. That’s why Michigan got so many easy shots.”

Miles said he believed entering the game that a victory over Michigan would have secured an NCAA bid. But the pressure weighed on his team.

“I don’t think there’s any question the guys kind of felt a burden of expectation,” he said. “You could see in the reaction afterward. The guys are down and very disappointed. And we should be.

“It was a moment to rise to the occasion, and we didn’t do it.”

So Nebraska has eight days to occupy until Selection Sunday, hoping against hope for an NCAA bid. If that doesn’t happen, take note that NIT Bracketology on Friday afternoon had the Huskers as a No. 1 seed hosting a first-round game against SMU.

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