By Brian Rosenthal / Huskers.com
Evan Taylor fielded five or six questions from local reporters Saturday afternoon before somebody asked about the free throws.
“I thought that was going to be the first question,” Taylor said, smiling and eliciting laughter.
You know what we’re talking about.
Taylor certainly did.
With his Nebraska basketball team tied with Iowa with 1.5 seconds remaining in regulation on Thursday night, Taylor, a junior transfer guard, missed not one, but two free throws that would’ve prevented two overtimes the Huskers needed to secure a 93-90 victory.
So, if Taylor was prepared for the question, what had he prepared for his answer?
“That’s what you got teammates for, right? They have my back, man,” Taylor said. “I was grateful, thankful to God. Somehow we got that win, but that’s what my teammates are for. I trust them, hope they trust me moving forward.”
Taylor’s honest, heartfelt response can’t be overlooked as one of the biggest reasons Nebraska (9-6, 3-0 Big Ten) is off to its best conference start in 41 years heading into Sunday’s pivotal – aren’t they all pivotal? – 1:15 p.m. game against Northwestern (12-4, 1-2) at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
These Huskers are tight, they like each other and, most importanty, they trust each other.
“It would’ve been easy to get mad at me,” Taylor said, “but as soon as I missed them in regulation, they said, ‘We got you, we’re going to win this game.’ For me, it was hard. I felt like I let my team down, but they picked me up. I’m grateful I have a team like that with leaders, and I feel like we all empower each other in some different way.”
That Taylor, who played a year of junior college basketball after a season at Samford, has emerged among those leaders is one of the surprising, feel-good stories – and there’ve been quite a few – during Nebraska’s sudden turnaround.
Before the Iowa game, Nebraska coach Tim Miles singled out senior guard Tai Webster and sophomore forward Michael Jacobson as a couple of Huskers with strong voices, then added, “Evan Taylor has some juice with these guys, too. You can tell.”
Taylor, a 6-foot-5 guard from Cincinnati, was a late addition to the 2016-17 recruiting class. The prevailing thought was that Taylor could be a “glue guy” capable of playing multiple positions off the bench.
He did, and did it well. Now, he’s started Nebraska’s last five games.
“I think he went from thinking that he had it figured out to realizing he didn’t and then deciding to figure it out,” Miles said. “He’s just been playing harder and harder and harder.”
Miles figured all along Taylor would help Nebraska immediately. He just wasn’t certain in what manner.
“I didn’t know how, if it was a backup point, but he rebounds pretty well, so you could play him at wing,” Miles said. “He’s not a two-guard, but he’s been extremely valuable now, especially without Anton.”
Anton Gill suffered a knee injury over Christmas break that’s sidelined the junior guard for the rest of the season. Taylor had cracked the starting lineup before that, though, having replaced wing Jack McVeigh.
“I think coming in, I added defense on the perimeter, ball-handling, facilitation, attacking,” Taylor said. “I feel like I’ve gotten better with each week, each game, each challenge. Obviously, there’s always room for improvement, but the way I gauge my success is when I come in, do I help my team win?”
The answer to that question has been a resounding "yes" lately. The Huskers have won four straight games, and are 4-1 with Taylor in the starting lineup. He finished with six points, five rebounds and three assists against Iowa.
He also was 0-5 on free throws – he missed two more at the end of double-overtime – after beginning the season 12-of-14 at the line.
Don’t worry. Miles has his back.
“There’s going to be a moment when he’s going to have to stand back up there and fight off the nightmare, but I believe he can do it,” Miles said. “I just told him, ‘Hey, listen, you’re out there for a reason, because I believe in you, and you’re going to be out there again, so make ‘em next time.’ And we kind of chuckled.”
Again, the most important outcome for Taylor was the victory, which leaves Nebraska and Wisconsin as the only unbeaten teams remaining in the young Big Ten Conference season.
“I feel like we’re learning how to win,” Taylor said. “Like, the other night we really had to gut that win out. It wasn’t given to us. That’s how your team builds character and trust in each other. You don’t just step on the court and win. You’ve got to learn how to win. With a new team and a lot of young guys, I’m just grateful we get that experience now that we win those games.”
Reach Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.