With the NCAA Tournament hanging in the balance, Nebraska literally and figuratively let its season slip through its fingers on Saturday.
In a must-win game in order to secure their first Tournament appearance in 13 years, the Huskers were their own worst enemy in an 83-82 overtime loss to an Iowa State team that came into the day just 1-12 in Big 12 Conference play on the season.
A 3-pointer by senior Lance Jeter with 3.4 seconds left in regulation tied the game at 72-72 and sent it into overtime, but Iowa State was simply too good down the stretch and held on to snap a 10-game losing streak.
The story of the game undoubtedly was told at the free throw line, as the Cyclones hit 19-of-22 from the charity stripe compared to just 6-of-13 by Nebraska. Outside of that, the Huskers out-played ISU in nearly every statistic, but it wasn't enough to be the difference in one of the bitterest losses in recent NU history.
"It's very, very disappointing," head coach Doc Sadler said on his post-game radio show. "I know it's disappointing to our players. Our fans have go to be very, very disappointed, because it was just a week ago that we were feeling very excited about ourselves.
"But hey, that's the way it is. As I told the team afterwards, that's the way life is. You better prepare yourself and you better get ready, because each and every day you've got to go out and earn it."
While Nebraska was able to keep Iowa State within reach the entire game, it could never get over the hump and make the big basket or get the defensive stop it needed to finally take the lead in the final minutes.
After going up 23-22 with nine minutes left in the first half, the Huskers wouldn't lead again until two minutes left in the overtime period. That lead lasted all of one possession, and Nebraska remained winless in Ames, Iowa, in six seasons under Sadler.
"The fact of the matter is offensively they just executed much better than we played defense," Sadler said. "There's not many teams that score 80 points on us, and that's what happened today."
Nebraska definitely had its chances, especially in the final moments of both the second half and overtime. The Huskers trailed 68-66 with less than a minute to play regulation, and they had two golden opportunities to tie it up or take the lead but could not convert.
The first came when Jeter found a wide open Jorge Brian Diaz under the basket with a minute left, but Diaz couldn't handle the pass and the ball went out of bounds to Iowa State. However, Brandon Ubel came up with a steal on the ensuing possession and was fouled with 38 seconds remaining.
Ubel hit his first free throw but couldn't finish with the second, leaving NU down 68-67. Iowa State's Diante Garrett made two free throws to bump it back up to a three-point game with 16 seconds left, and Nebraska called a timeout with 10.4 seconds to draw up one last play.
The play didn't exactly turn out as planned, but Jeter made up for it with a huge 3-point with Garrett in his face to tie the game at 70-70 and send it into overtime.
That momentum carried over into the extra period, and Nebraska eventually took its first lead since midway through the first half on a 3-pointer by Toney McCray that made it 79-77 with 2:14 remaining.
The Huskers couldn't get the job done on the other end, though, as Iowa State quickly tied it back up on the next possession and then reclaimed the lead on a lay-up by Garrett with 1:04 to play.
Nebraska's best chance at tying it back up came with roughly 10 seconds left, as once again Jeter got the ball to a wide-open Diaz under the hoop but the sophomore center simply couldn't hang onto it.
Even with Iowa State missing two of four free throws in the final minute of overtime, Nebraska couldn't capitalize, as it failed to score for the final 2:13 until Jeter banked in a desperation 3 with 0.8 left that gave the game its final at 83-82.
"If you looked at the stat sheet, you'd say 'Wow, how did Nebraska lose?'" Sadler said. "The way we lost is we didn't defend the way we've got to defend. We were fortunate enough to get a shot to get it into overtime, and then we get a stop, we don't get a defensive rebound and they get a basket. Eleven points we gave up in overtime. If you're playing for what we're playing for, you don't have the luxury to give up 11 points in an overtime game. We did, and we came up a point short."
The loss certainly didn't come from a lack of effort by Jeter, as he finished with a career-high 27 points - the most by a Husker this season - along with 10 rebounds and five assists. Aside from his costly mistakes, Diaz put together his best game of the season as well with 18 points and 11 rebounds.
Sadler, however, was not interested in trying to focus on the bright spots.
"It's hard to talk about individual play, because this basketball team was playing for so much," he said. "(Jeter and Diaz) did give us a chance. You look at the stat sheet, and we made jump shots that we haven't been making, we rebounded, Lance had a great night with a double-double and Brian had played very well. The fact of the matter is we didn't come up with a win, and that's what we came up here for."
Garret had 17 points to lead Iowa State, which had five different players score in double figures.
The Huskers must now try and put Saturday's heartbreaker behind them, as they have to get ready to take on Missouri on Wednesday in what will be Nebraska's Senior Night and final home game as a member of the Big 12.
Their dreams of going to Big Dance all but disappeared with Saturday's loss, but Sadler insisted his team wouldn't give up until the final second of the season ticks off the clock.
"Right now, we look at it as the sky is falling down, but who else lost today?" Sadler said. "Who knows, the teams that you're competing with for probably the final four or five in the NCAA Tournament, how did those teams do? The fact of the matter is, it goes back to what we've talked about all along - you can't look at it until the 16th game is over with and see how you did.
"A week ago we're sitting there feeling awfully good about ourselves, and now we've dropped two this week. We've got two more chances to get to 8-8, and if we get to 8-8, I think good things can happen for you."