LINCOLN — With the end so near, with the final game of the season at Pinnacle Bank Arena now here, there’s a nostalgic levity finally cascading down on the group of five.
For about two months, nearly nothing has gone right for these seniors. This 15-15 record, this potential 13th-place finish in the Big Ten, it’s not what this group envisioned when the season tipped off.
This was a group upset after its 69-point season-opening win over Mississippi Valley State. It wasn’t history. Wasn’t the NCAA tournament. So why celebrate, they said.
Then on Jan. 26, Isaac Copeland’s season ended on a freak play. James Palmer struggled to score in the ensuing weeks, and at the beginning of March, flew to Washington D.C. to attended the funeral of his grandfather between blowout losses to Michigan and Michigan State. Glynn Watson was so frustrated with his play on Feb. 6, he shot for 30 minutes in an empty arena after a loss to Maryland. Tanner Borchardt and Johnny Trueblood — two seniors who briefly left the team years ago only to return — have enjoyed the ride, but this wasn’t what they expected when they put the Nebraska jersey back on.
But the players are over feeling sorry for themselves. They’ve all crawled out of the rubble from the storm of the season and want to prove, one more time, that they’re not giving up.
“Finishing strong says everything about your character,” Borchardt said. “Season didn’t go your way, but still be a man about things and finish strong and show the state that, you know, yeah, we failed in some sense of the word this year, but we can still go out strong.”
Nebraska will finish its regular season with a rivalry game against Iowa on Sunday. The Hawkeyes are 21-9 and comfortably on the NCAA tournament bubble. But they’ve lost three in a row, including a 65-45 loss to Wisconsin on Thursday. The last two losses were without coach Fran McCaffery, who was suspended following the Ohio State game for cursing at a referee in the tunnel after the buzzer.
With McCaffery back, and the rivalry at PBA, Nebraska coach Tim Miles expects a battle.
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“I expect with Fran coming back they’ll be frothing at the mouth,” Miles said.
Nebraska, meanwhile, will be as thin as ever. Thomas Allen is a “game-time decision,” Miles said, but the sophomore hasn’t practiced since his ankle sprain against Michigan. Allen was briefly in Raleigh, North Carolina, for a funeral and rehab. He was limping heavily while walking around before practice on Friday.
Nebraska will also be without Nana Akenten, whom Miles suspended indefinitely on Thursday for a violation of team rules.
Which means Sunday will be all about how far the seniors — and Isaiah Roby — can carry the team.
Watson, who will finish in the top 10 of a few categories at Nebraska, is playing his best ball in weeks. He scored 25 against No. 15 Purdue and 25 against No. 9 Michigan State. Watson said he wants to be remembered as a guy who put it all on the line. The senior who, when everyone left, stayed.
“I know I probably could’ve went somewhere else, but that’s anybody, anybody could give up and go somewhere and try to start over,” Watson said. “But I didn’t want to.”
Palmer’s playing better, too. He put up 30 on Michigan State and made 10 shots in a game for the first time this season. The Miami transfer said he doesn’t regret his move to Lincoln and wants to put on a show for the fans in Nebraska one more time.
“Obviously everything doesn’t go your way, some things didn’t go like I wanted,” Palmer said. “These last three years have been phenomenal.”
Copeland will watch from the bench for the last time at PBA. He, too, said he didn’t regret transferring from Georgetown, injury and all. After a few days of wallowing, he’s proud of what he’s accomplished in Lincoln.
Trueblood will be right there on the bench with him. He’s hardly played, but that’s OK, he said. He wants to coach, and soaking up Miles’ teachings will take him far. Plus, he has some bragging rights.
“My only career 3-point attempt was I think against Rutgers, so I’m 1 for 1,” Trueblood said. “So, 100 percent is not bad.”
And finally there’s Borchardt, who’s become this season’s silver lining. The former walk-on left for a semester, returned to the practice squad, then made his way into the starting lineup. He’ll likely never play basketball again.
But he can sense what a win could do for the season. They’ve failed this year. Maybe they can scrap for a few wins in Chicago at the Big Ten tournament, but just one win at home for one final time? That could be sweet enough for this group that’s struggled through the end of this season.
“It’s been a journey, hasn’t it?” he said. “You don’t want to just lay over and let them kick you while you’re down. Show some pride and show what you’re made of.”