CHICAGO - For Nebraska to have any chance at putting together a miraculous run through the Big Ten Tournament and get a shot a post-season bid, it would have to find a way to knock off one of the conference's hotter teams in Purdue in the first round to do it.
The Huskers took that first step Thursday night.
In a game that came down to Boilermaker guard Terone Johnson missing two potentially game-tying shots in the lane in the final seconds, No. 10-seed Nebraska was able to hang on and pull out the first upset of the tournament over No. 7 Purdue in Chicago, 57-55.
After leading by as much as 11 points in the second half, the Huskers watched the Boilermakers steadily chip away and pull it to within one on a 3-pointer by D.J. Byrd at 54-53 with 39 seconds remaining. Nebraska would then miss four of its final seven free throw attempts in the last minute to give the Boilermakers a chance to tie or win with 12 seconds to go.
Both shots came up empty, though, and junior guard Ray Gallegos hauled in the final rebound just before the buzzer sounded to seal up a victory few outside the NU locker room thought possible.
"It was a good win for Nebraska," head coach Tim Miles said. "It was a good program win. I thought these guys really committed to our defensive game plan like they have all year. It wasn't a textbook finish, again, but we'll take it."
Freshman Shavon Shields set the tone from the first minute of the game, as he kicked things off by scoring the Huskers' first seven points of the night. Nebraska rode him to go into halftime with a 30-28 advantage. The Huskers shot 52 percent from the field as a team, led by Shields, who scored 15 of his game-high 19 points on 6-of-7 shooting in the first half.
"I was just creating in the offense, and my teammates were screening and finding me and things like that," Shields said. "So if it wasn't for them screening, getting me open and playing as a team, I wouldn't have had 19 points."
The Huskers led from the nine-minute mark in the first half on into halftime and then exploded with an 11-0 run to start the second half. Their lead eventually grew to as much as 41-30 after a bucket by senior forward Brandon Ubel 16 minutes remaining in the game, and for a brief moment it looked like they might cruise to a victory.
Those thoughts quickly vanished after Purdue rebounded from a 6:30 scoring drought with an 8-0 run that made it a 48-47 game after a 3 by Byrd with 4:11 to play. Nebraska answered with a 6-2 spurt over the next two minutes that kept the Boilermakers at bay, but another big 3 by Byrd got it back to 54-53 with 39.1 left on the clock.
Gallegos was sent to the line on NU's next possession but missed the second of two free throws with the Huskers up just two with 33 seconds left. While Shields cooled off significantly with his scoring in the second half, he came up with a huge offensive rebound off Gallegos' miss and kicked the ball out to run another four seconds off before Ubel got fouled and sent to the line.
Once again, though, the Huskers couldn't capitalize at the charity stripe, as Ubel missed the first but made the second attempt to make it 56-53 with 29 seconds left. Byrd then rebounded and put back a missed 3-pointer by Anthony Johnson to cut it one with 12 seconds to go, and Gallegos was fouled to sent to the line again.
Gallegos missed the first but made his second attempt, leaving Purdue with a chance to tie or win on the final possession.
"That's just hard to replicate in practice," Miles said on the late free throw issues. "That's part of learning how to win. Free throws are mental toughness. It's like golf skill. It's something that you have to stand up there and do. It's mental. Usually technically, by the time you're junior or senior in college, you know what you're doing. So it's just one of those positions where we have to continue to get better at."
Terone Johnson drove and missed a mid-range jumper, then got his own rebound and threw up a tough shot in traffic that was off the mark. Gallegos finally grabbed the rebound, and that put a stamp on Nebraska's first ever Big Ten Tournament victory.
"We were trying to survive," Miles said of NU's defensive strategy on the final possession. "That's just the truth."
Ubel finished with 16 points and a game-high eight rebounds, while Gallegos followed with nine points. Byrd led Purdue with 15 points, while A.J. Hammons had 11 and Ronnie Johnson added 10.
With the win, Nebraska moves on to Friday's second round game to face No. 2-seed Ohio State, which defeated the Huskers 70-44 in Columbus and then 63-56 in Lincoln. While the odds will undoubtedly be stacked against NU even more so against the Buckeyes, the team is using its seven-point loss at home back on Feb. 2 as motivation.
In that game, the Huskers turned a 15-point deficit in the second half into their closest final margin against OSU since joining the Big Ten last year. Tip-off is set for 5:30 p.m. CT and will be televised the Big Ten Network.
"I think you stole my post-game talk, because that's exactly what we told them," Miles said when asked about using the last game against Ohio State as motivation. "That game was a game down the stretch, and we were right there. A few things go our way and we could have come out on top. That's what you have to cling to. That's what you have to build your case on. Our guys will be ready to go. I think they'll be locked in. Their hearts are fresher than their legs, but I think that's going to be alright."