LINCOLN — Cam Mack wouldn’t leave the floor. Neither would Dachon Burke.
Would you, if you’d just changed the narrative of a season in 48 hours?
They stood on the northeastern corner of the court surrounded by a mob wanting a piece of the two guards who led Nebraska to a 70-56 win over Purdue.
“Burke! Will you sign this?” A boy asked, shoving a bucket hat through the crowd.
“Yeah, baby,” said Burke, who scored 18 points with four 3-pointers. He scrawled his name with a big, black sharpie.
“I see you, Mr. Mack!” A woman from the bleachers shouted.
The first player in program history to record a triple-double — 11 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists — smiled and pointed at the woman, then received a hug from another. Someone gave the two a phone.
“Stay with us, man! Stay with us we here. We in tune, man!” They yelled into the camera.
Nebraska’s sports information director tried to part the red sea near the tunnel, while the director of operations pushed the two guards from behind, finally ushering them off a court that two months ago housed horrors. But on Sunday, the arena turned into an unexpected haven on a snowy afternoon.
“If we could have came back and won this game, it would have been a shame,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “They played harder than us. They were more ready to play.”
This despite a 7 p.m. tip Friday at Indiana and a 45-minute battle that ended in a 96-90 overtime loss. Then a four-hour flight back that landed just hours before sunrise, followed by a short walk-through Saturday afternoon and a light scrimmage Sunday morning.
Nebraska played a team taller at every position, thicker at every position, with three more eligible scholarship players and a coach with 159 Big Ten wins. Nebraska upset a Purdue team that ranked fifth in the country in defensive efficiency and crushed defending champion Virginia by 29 on Dec. 4, the same day Nebraska shot 32% from the floor in a 73-56 loss at Georgia Tech.
Nebraska’s fifth win of the year made no sense, considering all the evidence from the past two months. The UC Riverside blowout. The Southern Utah collapse. The 40-9 hole eight days before at Creighton.
But sometimes in sports, sense disappears and is replaced by small moments of unexpected brilliance. Nebraska captured that Sunday.
“We’ve come a long way,” Burke said. “I feel like this year, it’s been a roller coaster, but we’re at the point now where everyone is just buying in.”
Nebraska shot 43% from the floor, made 11 3-pointers and held Purdue (6-4) to its lowest shooting percentage of the year (30%). The Huskers ran out to a 12-2 lead on two Thorir Thorbjarnarson 3-pointers. He finished with 13 points and five rebounds.
Purdue countered, pounding it inside to the bigs to tie it 14-14. The next two minutes were painful basketball, with neither team making shots, neither team taking care of the ball. But it was those two minutes — not Mack’s triple-double or 13 points off nine Purdue turnovers — that really won the game, Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg said.
“This is where we won the game with that lull in the middle of the first half where we couldn’t throw that thing in the ocean,” the coach said. “But we kept guarding, and we gave ourselves a chance, because they were not able to pull away.”
A 15-1 NU run led by six first-half assists from Mack made it 34-23 by halftime.
In the second half, Nebraska kept Purdue off the glass, allowing 12 second-chance points on 19 offensive rebounds. The lead went to 13 after a corner 3 from Haanif Cheatham, but the Boilermakers found a little life from Trevion Williams, who scored 18 points with 16 rebounds. Two straight buckets from the 6-foot-9, 275-pound Williams followed by 3s from Isaiah Thompason and Eric Hunter closed the gap to 52-50 with 8:54 left.
A steal and score by Thorbjarnarson helped NU regain control with an eight-point advantage. After a Burke 3-pointer and dunk off a Mack assist — his 12th — the Pinnacle Bank Arena crowd could sense it.
“When you know you got a really good point guard is when they make really tough plays look easy,” Hoiberg said. “That’s what Cam does.”
In the end, to prove it was worthy of the upset, Nebraska had to defeat its cruelest foe — the free-throw line, where they rank near the bottom in the country.
In the same spot where Mack missed two free throws two months earlier that would’ve put Southern Utah away, Thorbjarnarson hit four straight to give NU a 15-point lead, the largest of the afternoon.
“I think everybody that stepped on the floor tonight had a positive impact on that win tonight,” Hoiberg said. “That’s what being a team is all about.”
When Mack and Burke finally made it through the tunnel, they walked past the place where Mack stood alone minutes after that Southern Utah loss. No one talked to him that night as he looked out onto the court, waiting for the arena to clear so he could practice shooting free throws.
Sunday, he and Burke couldn’t walk two feet without a high-five or pat on the back. Fans followed them until the wooden door clicked behind them as they enter into a new season.
“(Nebraska was) awful at the beginning of the year,” Painter said. “Their story is not over.”