LINCOLN — Maybe six months from now, when the weather warms up and the tensions cool down, Greg McDermott and Tim Miles will share a cart at Shadow Ridge and they’ll laugh about it.
They weren’t smiling Saturday. Nor did they look much like old friends.
Six minutes into a wild, chippy game at Pinnacle Bank Arena, the Creighton and Nebraska coaches stood about 10 paces apart, barking back and forth. Both received technicals.
“I don’t know, you’ll have to ask the referee,” McDermott said.
What were you upset about?
“You’ll have to ask the referee what it was about.”
But what were you upset about?
“I’ve answered the question.”
OK, let’s try Miles.
“I’m not going there,” he said.
According to observers — the exchange happened within ear shot of dozens of people — Miles alerted officials to McDermott calling a play from outside the coaching box. McDermott fired back with a few choice words for Miles, who told him to “shut up.”
For two decades, McDermott has barely broken a sweat facing Miles, let alone lost his cool. He’s beaten Miles so many times (14) in so many ways (usually by double digits) that it felt like big brother beating on little brother.
Well, the whipping boy found a bat.
In the closest thing to a must-win December game, before the wildest home crowd in at least four years, after a crunch-time collapse at Minnesota, Miles finally whacked McDermott in the cheek.
James Palmer put on a shooting show. Thomas Allen played like a five-star recruit. Miles’ five starters combined for 87 points.
When Nebraska jumped ahead 40-19, I started having flashbacks to Barry Collier vs. Dana Altman. Only this time Creighton was Nebraska, and Nebraska was Creighton.
What was the secret? It started at the 3-point line, where NU let it fly and buried 14 for 27, beating the Jays at their own game. Palmer made six, including three in the first three minutes.
But the real key wasn’t one player or one statistic or even one run. It was good old-fashioned desire. The Huskers, sick and tired of losing to their in-state nemesis, expressed their frustration with an endless series of hustle plays — Miles may need to borrow knee pads from John Cook’s volleyball team.
McDermott called it “mind-boggling the number of points they scored” after beating the Jays to a loose ball. “A lot of those possessions, they hit a 3 or they went to the free-throw line.”
Nebraska can’t possibly bring this kind of intensity every night, but it’s one heckuva force when it does.
There went Nana Akenten diving on the floor and ripping a ball away from Mitch Ballock. There went Isaiah Roby chasing down a Creighton fast break and blocking a shot off the glass. There went Isaac Copeland following a missed layup with a dunk. With each highlight, the Husker roars got a little louder.
It was catharsis for all those years of agony, knowing that Creighton not only had a talent edge but a psychological edge. Saturday didn’t carry the consequences of “No-Sit Sunday” 2014, but the emotions weren’t far behind.
Nebraska’s best players had much to gain themselves, but they were motivated by Miles’ awful record against McDermott.
“I just wanted to get that win for my coach,” Glynn Watson said. “I’ve been here with him through the thick and thin.”
Miles has compiled Nebraska’s most talented team in 20 years, but he hasn’t convinced a vocal segment of the fan base that he’s the man to maximize it. Losing to Creighton again would’ve been the closest thing to unforgivable.
“I’ve been very frank that I need to beat Greg McDermott,” Miles said. “The Huskers need to beat Creighton.”
Miles kept the emotions in check after Minnesota, players said. No rivalry talk like last year. No rah-rah speeches. If the stress overwhelmed him, Miles didn’t show it. Friday night he actually got some sleep, recording 72-percent sleep quality, according to his phone.
“72 for me is really good,” Miles said. “My numbers are usually in the 50s.”
It’s easier to sleep when you have standout seniors. If Nebraska can break down the big blue barrier with such force, the other obstacles — ahem, the NCAAs — don’t look quite as daunting, do they.
Afterward, Miles and McDermott exchanged a very quick handshake. The victors celebrated at mid-court as Miles did a TV interview. Then the coach broke routine.
Normally, Miles enters the locker room and goes straight into his postgame speech. The good, the bad, what’s next.
“This time,” Tanner Borchardt said, “he snuck through the side. We didn’t even know he was in there. I looked up and he was just sitting in the chair like, ‘I did it.’ Like a weight was lifted off his shoulders.”
Soon the Huskers were dousing him with water. Miles ducked his head and took it. He’d retaliated enough for one day.