Isaac Copeland

Isaac Copeland has had to watch, knowing he could have done something to stop the bleeding, reverse the trend, anything. “It hurts a lot, especially us losing,” Copeland said on Friday. “I feel like I could make a difference.”

LINCOLN — “Making history is hard.”

Engrave those words on the cover of the 2018-19 Nebraska basketball scrapbook, before tossing it on the pile of the others in the bottom of a Pinnacle Bank Arena closet.

Making history is hard. Isaac Copeland said it, and he should know. Copeland came to NU from Georgetown, where he was surrounded by the massive history of the program. He came to make his own legacy, and he was on his way, until he went up for that dunk.

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That moment is still frozen in my mind. It happened on Jan. 26, Saturday afternoon, Ohio State at PBA. On the second possession of the second half, Copeland was whistled for traveling.

Copeland decided to finish the play, and went up for a dunk. Ohio State’s Musa Jallow went up to contest the dunk, just a couple of guys playing after the whistle. It looked harmless.

But then Copeland landed awkwardly. He lay on the floor behind the basket, holding his knee. He later returned from the locker room and watched the rest of the game on the bench.

Maybe he’d miss a week, a couple of games, if they were lucky. But no such luck.

About three hours later, I recall seeing the news on Twitter: Copeland out for the season with a torn ACL.

History is hard. And harder to watch when it doesn’t happen.

Nebraska lost to the Buckeyes that day, and since then has gone 2-8. Copeland has had to watch, knowing he could have done something to stop the bleeding, reverse the trend, anything.

“It hurts a lot, especially us losing,” Copeland said on Friday. “I feel like I could make a difference.”

On Sunday Copeland and the others will go through a Senior Day they never imagined, with the team 15-15 and 5-14 and in 13th place in the Big Ten. No postseason, no history.

There’s an old, overused saying that the saddest words in sports are “It might have been.” There is no truth that the author of that phrase was a Nebraska basketball coach.

For the last several weeks of the season, Copeland had to sit and watch his team lose and lose and lose. Flounder at Illinois. Pounded by Maryland and Purdue. Demolished at Penn State.

It was hell, but he wasn’t alone. Every Nebraska basketball fan who ever dreamed a dream was sitting next to him on that bench, watching the wreck unfold, in slow motion, night after night.

This one will be hard to forget, but the sooner the better.

If there’s a consolation, it’s that Copeland should not lose a moment’s sleep over his impact on the Huskers’ fate. His injury didn’t help matters. But it was not solely responsible for the way the season went.

There were still plenty of games left, still plenty of seniors, still plenty of able bodies. Enough to make a stand, with effort and heart and playmaking and some prodding and adjustments from the coaches. This was about more than one injury, even a big one, and Copeland knows that.

“We already lost three games in a row with me (including the Ohio State game),” he said. “A lot of things happen. It’s hard to win in the Big Ten.”

Sure, at the time he was injured, Copeland was having the kind of year he wanted: averaging 14 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.1 steals. Without a true center, NU used the 6-foot-9 senior around the floor, drawing mismatches inside and out.

“When Isaac’s in the game, you had all this versatility,” NU coach Tim Miles said Friday. “You had a team switching ball screens — Copeland was a danger to drive it, shoot it, pass it. Now you put a different guy out there, not his skill set.

“He had an excellent sense of when to be there, sense of when the post feed was coming and when to double. It just lessens you in every way.

“You have to overcome it.”

They didn’t do it. And there’s no need to point fingers or assign blame at this point. They all had a hand in it, from the coaching staff on down.

It was mind-blowing, really, to watch a team that had so much momentum and confidence — a rotation and formula to win back in December — turn into a team that limped to the finish with performances that had a broadcaster calling out their effort on national TV.

A basketball season is fragile, and if the Copeland injury showed anything, it was the fragility of the program. New roles had to be learned. But mostly, the seniors on the team — along with junior Isaiah Roby — had to carry the thing, night in and out.

“You really can’t put the way the season’s gone on one thing,” said senior forward Tanner Borchardt. “We had to step up and fill the role. Yeah, it did have a big impact on us, but we had to find ourselves and accept new roles we weren’t comfortable with.”

Suddenly, the what-if wasn’t about Copeland. What if Michael Jacobson had stayed? Or Ed Morrow? Or Jordy Tshimanga? These were role players who could have added the dimension of rebounding, defense and scoring inside.

What if? What if the Big Ten had been better last year and carried the Huskers and their 13 league wins into the NCAA tournament? What if Andrew White had stayed?

How about this: What if Nebraska had found a way to get two or three more wins? For all their struggles, the Huskers are still 51st in the NCAA’s NET rankings. The NCAA tourney bubble is crazy wide open.

Had they finished that game at Minnesota, or Maryland, or shown up at Penn State, or held on to the 13-point lead at Rutgers, or ...

“I talked to my wife the other day and she said, ‘How in the world is Indiana on the bubble?’” Miles said. “I said, ‘Well, if we had won this game or that game going into Iowa, we’d be right there.’ Just two more games.”

In a way, it’s been the theme of Miles’ time at Nebraska. He made things better. But it’s still been maddeningly short.

“You have to overcome it,” Miles said. “But sometimes you don’t. That’s a great compliment to Isaac. It’s not a great compliment to my wizardry coaching.

“When you look at that, it’s hurt us. No doubt in my mind, if he was still with us, we’re fighting for a 7 or 8 seed in the NCAA tournament.”

Making history was hard enough with him.

Sports columnist

Tom is The World-Herald's lead sports columnist. Since he started in Omaha in 1991, he's covered just about anything you can imagine. Follow him on Twitter @TomShatelOWH. Phone: 402-444-1025.

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