LINCOLN — “Agony” may not be a strong enough word to explain what happened to Nebraska on Thursday night, and in general throughout the Big Ten season.
The Huskers forced seventh-ranked Wisconsin into overtime when sophomore forward Michael Jacobson, who hadn’t even attempted a 3-pointer in the previous 10 games, nailed one with .3 left in regulation.
NU then built a three-point lead in overtime, but saw the Badgers bank in a 3-point shot to tie with 1:20 to play and hit another with 18.4 seconds left for a 70-69 victory in front of a wrung-out crowd of 14,568 at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
It was the third one-point loss in Big Ten play for Nebraska (10-14, 4-8), and the fifth by single digits.
“It was a gritty effort by our team,” coach Tim Miles said. “I never questioned their resolve and their heart. It seems like we do just enough to lose. It’s a lot of different factors. It’s not just a play here or there. It’s a big picture thing.”
After so many close losses, will this gut-churner be the one that cracks Nebraska open?
Miles and senior guard Tai Webster forcefully shook their heads no in unison.
“This will not sink us,” Miles said.
Nebraska took a 69-67 lead when Webster hit two free throws with 1:11 left in overtime. He led NU with 19 points, but again struggled from the field as he has lately, going 6 of 18.
The Huskers got a defensive stop, then Ed Morrow drew a foul but missed both free throws with 43 seconds to go.
Wisconsin got the lead back 70-69 with 18.4 seconds left on senior forward Nigel Hayes’ 3-pointer. He scored 18 of his game-high 20 points after halftime.
Nebraska called time to set a play.
Webster, the Big Ten’s second-leading scorer in league games, eventually drove the lane and attempted a layup. Wisconsin forward Ethan Happ, who stands 6-foot-10, blocked the 6-4 Webster’s shot. Happ also grabbed the rebound and called time with 3.3 seconds left to preserve the eighth straight victory for the league-leading Badgers (21-3, 10-1).
At the beginning of that play, Webster stumbled trying to make use of a screen. He gave the ball up, then got it back and had to rush.
“I forced one when I got it back,” he said. “It wasn’t a very good shot. It was a good opportunity to make a play. I just tripped.”
Happ said Wisconsin figured the final shot would go to Webster.
“He had been scoring a lot,” Happ said. “I just saw the ball. So I went for it, and got the block and was lucky enough to get it and call timeout.”
Hayes had made 1 of 9 3-pointers in the past three games, and 17 of 57 for the season before his winner from 20 feet.
“As Ethan and I like to say to one another, big players make big-time plays,” Hayes said. “I’ll never lose confidence in myself. If I had missed my last 30 3s, I’d still take that one.”
Nebraska played with as close to a full lineup Thursday as it has in a month.
Morrow, who missed seven straight games with a foot injury, had five points and 13 rebounds in 26 minutes. Said Miles: “Ed was a warrior.”
Sophomore guard Glynn Watson, slowed for four games by a groin pull, started and played 38 minutes. He scored five of his 15 points in overtime.
Nebraska outshot the Badgers 40 percent to 36.5 percent, and outrebounded them 50-37. But a season-high 22 turnovers — the most since committing 20 in a loss to Gardner-Webb — stalled NU’s offense at highly inopportune times.
The Huskers didn’t lead until 50-49 when freshman forward Isaiah Roby stole a pass and drove the length of the court for a layup with 5:08 to play in regulation. Roby drew praise for his 15 minutes before fouling out. He had four points, eight rebounds and three blocks.
With 13 seconds left in regulation, Hayes hit a jumper to put Wisconsin up 58-55. Nebraska called time, ran a play and eventually found Jacobson behind the 3-point line. He hit his fourth of the season in 22 tries to knot it 58-58.
But when UW guard Bronson Koenig banked in a 3-pointer with 1:21 left in overtime to tie it, the Huskers began to wonder what bad could happen next.
Miles praised the fans for their support, despite a sixth home loss.
“Sometimes in an ugly game where it’s a defensive battle, it’s hard to get into it,” he said. “But they were up. They knew big possessions. We started out really slow, but never let Wisconsin get away from us. The crowd really helped.”