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Four Nebraska seniors - Toney McCray, Brandon Richardson, Bo Spencer and Caleb Walker - will play their final regular-season home basketball game Wednesday night against Iowa. The stakes are not what they envisioned. Trying to fight their way out of last place in their first year in the Big Ten Conference is a reflection of reality and a tough task to deal with, but it will not define who they are and what they might become. In the past five years, Nebraska has won 84 games, upset eight ranked teams and earned three postseason appearances. That legacy, however, is buried in the avalanche of untimely injuries that kept their top two post players - Jorge Brian Diaz and Andre Almeida - on the bench and the Huskers out of contention.
The good news is this is a senior class that deserves the support and the applause of Nebraska's loyal fans who know, deep down, what their real legacy is - a group of four hard-working seniors who kept their starting jobs throughout the season because even when the losses piled up, they did not lose their character, their heart or their persistence to press on despite all odds.
"It hasn't gone their way, and it's not their fault," Nebraska Head Coach Doc Sadler said before Monday's practice. Sadler knows the four seniors will have to face tougher moments in life and when they do, "they'll continue to handle it like they've handled this," he said. "I think athletics is supposed to teach you lifelong lessons. This isn't going to be the worst thing to happen to them or me. I think if we handle it the way we've handled it and learn from it, then it's going to help us somewhere down the road."
Richardson would be the first to second that. He's experienced the high of scoring a career-high 25 points in Nebraska's 79-73 win over the Hawkeyes in Iowa City and persevered through all kinds of great defensive efforts that fell short of winning because of the Huskers' offensive struggles at times during the season.
Richardson Ready to Put Hard Hat Back On
"In sports or in life, you have to fight through adversity," Richardson said Monday. "When you go through things, you have to be mentally strong and push forward. Nothing's going to be easy. You have to put on your hard hat and go to work. You don't make excuses. That's what I've been taught to live by. That's what I will continue to live by."
Richardson said Sadler has instilled values in all four seniors. "At the end of the day," Richardson said, "you play for pride, you play for character, you play for the program. I'm proud of our guys sticking in there. Opportunity is a huge word, and it's not going to be easy by any means, but we can still take ownership and make the best out of the opportunity we have. You always play to the end. If you keep fighting, you never know what can happen."
No wonder Richardson's grandma said B-Rich is one in a million when we talked to her after his 9-of-10 shooting night that included six 3-pointers at Iowa. Monday we learned another reason why Blanche Little of Chesapeake, Va., is so high on her grandson. When B-Rich was asked what he wanted to do after graduating with a bachelor's degree in sociology in May, the Los Angeles native said: "I want to work in gerontology. I want to work with older people. I find it fun not just to be around them, but the learning experience you get from them. As a young person, I'm willing to do that. I'm ready for whatever's out there."
Sadler agrees with B-Rich's grandma, calling him "a kid who came here five years ago from halfway across the country" and has shown himself to be "one of those guys who's prepared himself each and every day to be successful not just on the court, but off the court ... that's what it's supposed to be about anyway."
Sadler Calls Senior Class a Unique Group
Sadler said McCray and Spencer also are scheduled to graduate in May and Walker is not far behind in his pursuit of a diploma. "This is a unique group," Sadler said. "Obviously, it's a very disappointing ending for them because the expectations were higher than what we've given. At the same time, I'm very pleased with their effort throughout all of this because that's something I've not had to concern myself with. Coaches understand what I'm saying when I talk about guys who are going to continue to do things you ask them to do. From day one last spring, they've done what I've asked."
When injuries and losses took their toll, Sadler's players followed the lead of their head coach ... no excuses. Last Saturday night was a typical example. Nebraska held Michigan State, a true national championship contender and possible No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed, to 23 first-half points. Their second half comeback, however, ended with Spencer, the team's leading scorer with 15.1 points per game, spraining his ankle.
A transfer from LSU, Spencer has been in Lincoln two years, and he's finishing his last season of eligibility. "I really would have liked to have the opportunity to coach him for four years because I do think he could be a special player," Sadler said. "I've enjoyed coming to practice and working with him."
Richardson said he and his teammates will "press on" Wednesday night and do the best they can. "Obviously, we haven't accomplished what we wanted to do," Richardson said. "Just because things haven't gone our way doesn't mean we should throw in the towel. We're disappointed, but not giving up."
Qualities Will Carry Seniors to Success
The 2012 class of Nebraska basketball seniors has shown Husker fans their personality, patience, perseverance and persistence, which may be the most important trait to succeed in life. They also have the dedication, determination, doggedness and drive to succeed in life after basketball.
"With all the injuries he's had, Toney's had a frustrating career," Sadler said. "He's had to stay the course, and it's not been easy for him." McCray enters the Iowa game as Nebraska's second leading scorer (9.8 ppg) and second leading rebounder (4.5 rpg).
Like McCray, Walker has been a two-year starter since transferring to Nebraska from Butler (Kan.) Community College. "In his own quiet way, Caleb has been a great leader for us," Sadler said. "He's one of the most athletic kids we have on the team, and he's on course to graduate. He takes care of himself off the court, too."
For four seniors, the character to press on in life will be more important than they ever imagined, and they will always have a friend in Sadler.
"I will never forget this practice facility," Richardson said, looking around while being interviewed Monday. "I'll be back, for sure. It's been a great ride. It hasn't been the best, but at the same time, I've made the best out of my opportunity here, and that's all I can do."
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Voices from Husker Nation
Great article!! These four young men have represented themselves well by working hard and not embarrassing anyone in the process, and they are going out with their heads held high. As a former coach, I very much appreciate their efforts, even though it didn't translate into more wins. Doc's a good guy. He's never embarrassed us and always acted with control and class. Something good has to come out of all of this. All of these guys deserve to share in the better things to come. Respectfully, Roger Douglas, Crete, Nebraska