Palmer Keeps Huskers On Track
That’s the basic recap of Nebraska’s 70-66 victory over Maryland on Tuesday night.
Now, do it again.
It’s the only way Nebraska (20-8, 11-4 Big Ten Conference) can keep its name on the NCAA Tournament bubble, and the Huskers are well aware.
Perhaps that explains why they came out a bit tight before an engaged crowd of 15,397 at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
“I thought that we were a little nervous early. I really do think we were nervous,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said. “I thought the moment kind of got to us a little bit, and both teams knew what was at stake.
“These are two teams that have to put together a run. We’re in the middle of one. Maryland needs to get on one, and they just beat a good Northwestern team handily, and this was a big opportunity for them. So I think that gravity certainly sunk in, the gravity of that moment.”
Nebraska has 20 wins in the regular season for the first time since 1993, when it reached that mark on the final game of the regular season.
“It’s great, but we’re not planning on stopping here,” Miles said. “I told our guys a couple of weeks ago if you’re counting wins, you’re doing it wrong. You need to get your mind free of that and just keep playing and keep winning.”
Palmer seemed to take that to heart.
He went scoreless for nearly the game’s first 17 minutes before scoring on an emphatic dunk. The junior guard, with two points at halftime, gained more momentum in the second half, when he scored 24 points, repeatedly doing what he does best – attacking the rim.
That, Palmer said, was the plan coming out of halftime.
“When you get into a rhythm, everybody knows it’s like throwing a rock in the ocean,” said Palmer, who's scored at least 26 points in four of Nebraska's last seven games. “You don’t think you can miss. Guys did a great job of finding me.”
Palmer scored all 13 of Nebraska’s points during a 10-minute stretch of the second half. That included a heads-up play when he nearly lost the ball out of bounds on a baseline drive, regained control to flip the ball to Anton Gill near the wing, and then popped in the corner, where Gill found Palmer for a 3-pointer and 61-54 lead.
“He got cookin’,” junior guard Glynn Watson Jr. said. “That was big.”
Seeing Palmer was pouring sweat and breathing hard, a Nebraska assistant coach recommended to Miles to give his star a breather.
“I was in a vulnerable moment and I agreed to it,” Miles quipped. “I regret it.”
When he took Palmer out of the game with 5:15 remaining, and the Huskers leading 63-56, Nebraska proceeded to miss its next four field goal attempts. Palmer returned with 2:56 remaining and the Huskers clinging to a 64-61 lead.
Maryland (17-11, 6-9) cut the margin to one but never took the lead, despite the fact Nebraska went the game’s final 5:42 with no field goals. The Huskers did, however, salt away the game at the free-throw line, where they were 7-of-8 in the final 3 minutes, with six straight makes in the final 20 seconds.
“That was important to make them down the stretch, because free throws are mental toughness,” Miles said. “That’s how you win close games, too. You have to make your layups, make your free throws.”
Roby collected his second straight double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds, his final rebound coming when he snagged a missed Watson 3-pointer with 22 seconds remaining and Nebraska leading by one. That came after Watson had blocked a 3-point attempt by Anthony Cowan with 53 seconds remaining to give Nebraska the ball.
“Especially when the shot comes off kind of hard, a lot of it is just luck, be in the right spot,” Roby said of his rebound to extend the possession. “I think my guy ran in to the rim, and it just happened to come off hard, so I just ended up being in the right spot.”
Roby sank two free throws, Kevin Huerter scored inside for Maryland, and Watson, who finished with eight points and surpassed 1,000 career points, made two free throws to push the margin back to three with 6.7 seconds remaining.
Nebraska fouled to keep Maryland from attempting a 3-pointer, and Huerter made his first free throw and intentionally missed his second, but Palmer secured the rebound and made two free throws with .9 seconds left to secure the Huskers’ sixth consecutive victory. That’s their longest winning streak in conference play since 1998.
Trailing 36-34, the Huskers gained separation they needed with a 9-0 run that included a 3-pointer in transition from Palmer and a dunk from Roby that ignited the crowd.
Maryland coach Mark Turgeon used the word “good” to describe Palmer but hardly heaped praise on a player vying for first-team All-Big Ten honors.
“Well, he got hot obviously,” Turgeon said. “Two of my best defenders to guard him, both had fouls. We made some mistakes, too. We let him get to the rim. When (Jordy Tshimanga) was in, our five man should’ve been standing at the rim. It was pretty frustrating, to be quite honest with you.”
Palmer’s 24 second-half points, which came on 9-of-13 shooting, tied the Nebraska record for most points in a half. The last Husker to accomplish the feat was Aleks Maric, who had 24 points in the second half against Missouri 10 years ago to the date.
“James is just so critical for us,” Miles said.
The Huskers have won 11 conference games for just the fifth time in school history, and the second time under Miles, and are two wins shy of setting a school record for conference victories in a season.
“I told the guys after the game that this is a special circumstance, but enjoy it,” Miles said. “This is what you work for, so let’s relax. Let’s just stay in the moment, play great and don’t worry about, ‘Oh it’s a big game.’
“They’re all big. Illinois (on Sunday) is huge, so big deal. Just go out and play the way you can and I think the results will take care of themselves.”
Reach Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.