By Jennifer Brugh | @JenniferRBrugh
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS — If there was any question that the Nebraska Cornhuskers were tournament-ready coming into the second round of the Big Ten Tournament, their victory over No. 6 Wisconsin, their second win in as many days, may have hushed their critics.
The 11th-seeded Huskers, who had previously won just once in the Big Ten Tournament, defeated the Badgers, 70-58, on Thursday night to advance to the quarterfinal round for the first time. Nebraska (16-17) will face Maryland on Friday night.
“I thought we played a very tough-minded, determined basketball game,” Huskers’ head coach Tim Miles said after the game. “You could see they were flying around on the defensive end, making it difficult for Wisconsin, giving up their body on the glass, rebounding well, and played with good pace on offense, too. I was really proud of them.”
As he should be. The Huskers played with aggression and were tactical in their approach, both defensively and offensively. Defensively, it was senior guard Benny Parker and junior guard Tai Webster who scrapped for the ball, forced turnovers and combined for 6 of the team’s 9 steals. When asked about the defensive intensity, Parker said, “It made a big difference because it just showed that we were the aggressor on both ends of the floor and that led to scoring and getting out in transition, which we like to do.”
Wisconsin (20-12) certainly felt the sting of those transitions. Head coach Greg Gard, who was officially given the title on March 7 after serving as interim coach, said that he was worried about Nebraska’s momentum going into the game. The Huskers had defeated Rutgers, 89-72, in the first round on Wednesday.
“Tim’s team played and beat us to every 50/50 ball, every loose ball,” Gard said. “I thought they played with great energy and I think some of it, obviously, because they played yesterday. I was concerned about that, giving them a boost, especially in that category.”
The Huskers made 46.9 of their shots and had four players finish in double figures. Senior guard Shavon Shields led Nebraska with 20 points and freshman guard Glynn Watson Jr. scored 16.
The Badgers’ defense allowed Nebraska to score on 13 of their 24 shots in the second half.
To make matters worse for the Badgers, Thursday’s meeting was Wisconsin’s first encounter with Shields this year. When these two teams met back on Feb. 10, Shields did not play due to a concussion he sustained against none other than Rutgers on Feb. 6. In the tournament game, Shields made 6 of 15 field goal attempts and shot 8-of-9 at the foul line. Defensively, Shields towered over the Badgers offense to pull down nine defensive rebounds.
“Shavon is a difference maker in our program,” Miles said of his senior forward. “Not only on the floor, but off the floor, too, if you just look at his accolades. So his leadership, his presence really matters to the guys. So he is an excellent player for us. You can see when he started driving the baskets some, I feel sorry for the guy trying to step in his way, because he is a big physical guy going to the rim.”
Wisconsin clearly struggled to shut Shields down and did not have a plan to combat. Ethan Happ, Wisconsin’s 2016 Big Ten Freshman of the year, was visibly distraught after the game. Despite scoring a total of 17 points and grabbing seven rebounds, the freshman said he didn’t play well and didn’t do what his coach asked of him. He wasn’t alone.
To many, it appeared that Wisconsin just wasn’t into the game as much as the Huskers were. When asked why that was, Gard said that it was his one of his concerns going into the game, “that when teams are relatively even or you see a team that maybe played the day before and then they have to play the second day versus a team that’s just playing for the first time,” the energy level can be different and how hard a team plays.
Nebraska certainly took advantage of that factor and fed off the energy the Huskers had coming from the win over Rutgers the day before. And now they are ready to move on to the next round, taking on the No. 3 Terrapins in Friday’s quarterfinals.
“I literally—and I’m not trying to glamorize March basketball, but I was so proud of these guys,” Miles said. “I looked at the clock with 35 seconds and got chills. I could feel goosebumps on my legs, because I was just so happy for these guys. I saw extreme joy, you know, [a] tough-minded group playing together, finding a way, you know, beating a ranked opponent. And I was just so happy for them.”