Husker fans

Husker fans rock The Rock and corn hats in the first half on Thursday night against Michigan State. Said Spartans coach Tom Izzo: “It was rocking, as much as any place I’ve been."

LINCOLN — Almost famous.

You can’t call it a win, not when Nebraska fell painfully short of beating Michigan State. Hard to say it was a success, not when the evening will be remembered for what could have been.

But in ways that can’t be measured on the scoreboard, it was a great night for Nebraska basketball.

They came early. They came often. They parked on top of each other. All the way around the Haymarket and in the arteries around Pinnacle Bank Arena, you saw cars tucked in cracks and crevices. People parked where they could, parked where they weren’t supposed to be. It didn’t matter. This was a big night.

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Husker Hoops home games have become big events, and this was one of the grandest.

Michigan State is ranked No. 6 in the country, one of the vintage rock-hard Tom Izzo teams. It’s got the Final Four look. This is one of the better Nebraska teams in years. The Huskers were looking to measure up, see where they stood, make one of those mid-winter statements that hold up until March.

On the court, they were the gang that couldn’t shoot straight.

Everywhere else, the fans and arena nailed it.

This is football country. But the heart beat of hoops is loud and strong, especially on a night like this. Getting louder and stronger all the time.

The thing was, fans were good, but they could have been better. Loud, but could have been deafening. Standing, but they wanted to be jumping.

They wanted, pleaded and begged for a reason to blow the roof off the Vault. But after several lead changes in the first half, their heroes fell down by five at the half.

Then, in the second half, they missed. Shot after shot after shot. Simple drives to the basket on which the ball rolled around the rim, layup attempts that stopped short. Open jumpers that bounced off the iron.

The more they missed, the more they missed. It was beyond frustrating. The Huskers were 22 of 67 from the field, 5 of 26 from 3-point range.

If they just make some of those, a handful more, they have a chance to win and make a big night an all-time memory.

They didn’t get the W, losing by six, 70-64, and it’s no consolation. But it’s a fact: Nebraska fans elevated their program on a Thursday night of hoops.

With the game broadcast to the nation on FS1, iconic college hoops analyst and caretaker Bill Raftery was in the house. Raft said, “What an atmosphere! This is a must-see arena.”

Izzo, the hall of famer and dean of Big Ten coaches, twice complimented the crowd afterward. He said he told his freshmen “This is one of the best places you’ll ever play in,” and added, “It was rocking, as much as any place I’ve been. ...”

Maybe the best tribute of the night came from Graham Couch, a veteran Big Ten columnist for the Lansing State Journal, who praised Nebraska basketball in a blog entitled, “Nebraska is how a football school should do hoops.”

Couch wrote:

“Penn State, take notice. Or any school that views life through the lens of its football program, but would like to start something in hoops and bring some sizzle to a long winter. Nebraska is how you do it. They’ve made basketball a thing.

“The Huskers haven’t won enough to credit winning for the buzz. They’ve won just enough to keep the community’s interest and to increase expectations. It starts with the arena, Pinnacle Bank, which opened in 2013. It has a glitzy, big-time feel to it while pulling off a cozy vibe. Not easy to do. It helps that it’s in the middle of a desirable nightlife and hotel district near downtown.

“I haven’t seen a school with so much football tradition and emphasis — and so little relevant basketball history — do hoops this well. There’s a reason Tim Miles is on the hot seat. You can win here now. You should win here.”

They were one win short the other night, on a night when the fans were engaged on every possession. A night when the standing room section in the end zone went four deep. A night when some concession stands were out of food at halftime. And yet everybody went home hungry.

When this season is a memory, the Michigan State game will be one of those mile-markers that folks remember. OK, maybe not the game.

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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