MINNEAPOLIS — When it finally came to an end Sunday afternoon, Nebraska’s players sat side by side in their dugout as Indiana dog-piled and shouted and danced around the field where the Huskers had left everything.
No NU player spoke in that moment — the disappointment was too fresh. But wearing the same stained and tattered uniforms they had on for an improbable sweep of the Big Ten’s two best teams Saturday, the Huskers didn’t need words to convey how much it hurt to come up short.
No. 1 seed Indiana took the Big Ten tournament title in the bottom of the ninth inning Sunday, winning 4-3 to end Nebraska’s year just when the Huskers appeared to have found a groove. And the stunning realization of finality wasn’t easy to accept for a resilient group hoping to complete a special late-season run.
“It’s definitely tough,” senior shortstop Bryan Peters said. “But it’s good that we went down fighting. We fought all year.”
Their grit and passion didn’t always translate into wins, though. Perhaps that’s what will sting the most. The Huskers (29-30) were 8-18 in games decided by one or two runs, losing for the sixth time Sunday on a walk-off hit.
Had they won just one of those contests, they’d be in contention for an NCAA tournament spot when the field is announced at 11 a.m. Monday. Teams under .500 can’t get an at-large bid.
No. 3 seed Nebraska had already won three straight elimination games in two days at Target Field, including a 7-6 walk-off in the 11th inning against IU Saturday night. That forced Sunday’s rematch.
The season’s been on the line all week — and the players were at their best.
“Our guys, they just enjoy the grind,” Husker coach Darin Erstad said. “They enjoy getting dirty, they enjoy being tired and going out there and playing hard. … They kind of thrive in that situation.”
They were incredibly close.
Sophomore Kyle Kubat gave up seven hits in five innings against Indiana, throwing 74 pitches on three days rest. He had tossed 117 pitches in seven innings to lead Nebraska to an 11-2 win over Michigan in the tournament’s first-round game Wednesday.
Kubat left a runner in scoring position to end each of the game’s first four innings.
But the Hoosiers (43-14) had motivation, too, playing for maybe an NCAA tournament top eight seed. They certainly couldn’t handle a repeat of Saturday night, when an 11th-inning homer by Tanner Lubach clinched Nebraska’s win.
So Indiana loaded the bases with no outs in the ninth inning and won Sunday’s title game when sophomore Scott Donley lined a ball over NU’s drawn-in outfield.
Said Indiana coach Tracy Smith: “You just regroup. It was like, OK, they broke our hearts (Saturday) night. Let’s break theirs (Sunday).”
Freshman left-hander Will Coursen-Carr played a major role in making that happen, throwing his first complete game. He didn’t give up a run until the fifth inning. Second baseman Pat Kelly tied it at 1-1 with an RBI single after Peters tripled.
The Huskers pulled within 3-2 in the seventh when Kelly’s bloop single bounced off the glove of shortstop Michael Basil. An inning later, Lubach drove in senior Kash Kalkowski with a sacrifice fly.
Contact the writer:
402-473-9585, firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter.com/JonNyatawa