- Mitch Sherman, ESPN Staff Writer
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- Ndamukong Suh sat courtside and shot T-shirts into the crowd, because, hey, this is Nebraska, and there's never a break from football.
But rarely has the cash cow appeared so secondary as on Sunday, when the upstart basketball team toppled No. 9 Wisconsin 77-68 to close the regular season and likely punch Nebraska's ticket to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998.
“I told the guys in the locker room,” second-year coach Tim Miles said, “That’s what college basketball should be about. The exhilaration that you’re feeling, that we’re all feeling, that our fans are feeling, that’s the way it should be.”
Yes, this is new territory here. Students lined up outside Pinnacle Bank Arena, the school’s gleaming new home, at 5 a.m. and flooded the floor at the final buzzer, engulfing Miles and his band of overachievers.
In between, reserve guard Mike Peltz proposed to his girlfriend, Shelby Campbell, during pregame Senior Day festivities. Slashing wings Terran Petteway and Shavon Shields scored 26 points apiece as the Cornhuskers won for the 10th time in 12 games to improve to 19-11 and 11-7 in the Big Ten.
They earned the fourth seed in the league tournament this week and will play Ohio State or Purdue on Friday in Indianapolis.
Picked before the season to finish last in the Big Ten, Nebraska stymied the Badgers’ deliberate attack to snap an eight-game winning streak that included four road victories -- two over ranked foes -- and derail their hopes of a No. 1 seed.
“No. 1 seed for what?” coach Bo Ryan said. “We’re the No. 2 seed in the Big Ten tournament; that’s the only thing I know.”
Ryan was smarting after the defeat in front of a frenzied, school-record crowd of 15,998. The energy in the building Sunday exceeded anything experienced at Nebraska in the past two decades -- maybe ever.
But Ryan said the crowd mattered little to his players.
“These guys have all played in pretty big places,” he said. “This is the Big Ten.”
Make no mistake, the noise played a factor. It crescendoed early as senior Ray Gallegos buried a 3 from the corner to give the Huskers a 13-6 lead after less than five minutes.
After Wisconsin chipped away, as it led 35-34 at the break and by seven points one minute into the second half, the roof rattled when Gallegos hit his next shot from long range to give Nebraska the lead again at 53-52.
Shields’ ensuing jam in transition capped a 7-0 run and forced Ryan to call timeout, though the noise muted the officials’ whistles. When Petteway scored from close range two minutes to later to put the Huskers on top 60-53, the crowd and the Huskers sensed victory.
“I don’t know if you guys see it, but it’s a lot of fun out there,” Petteway said.
Shields and Petteway attacked the rim consistently, but Nebraska did not attempt a free throw in the first half. After halftime, the Huskers hit 19 of 25 from the line, including 11 from Petteway, the Big Ten’s leading scorer who sat for five minutes in the first half with two early fouls.
The Huskers held Wisconsin to 34.4 percent shooting (11 of 32) in the second half and 20 points during the decisive 17-minute stretch after the Badgers’ surge out of the locker room.
“We had to calm down and take a breath,” Petteway said.
So they stand on the brink of a breakthrough at Nebraska, which has endured two failed coaching stints and a lifetime of hurt since it last played on the sport’s biggest stage.
Asked if the Huskers belong, Ryan didn’t hesitate.
“There’s not even a question in my mind,” the 13th-year Wisconsin coach said.
The Huskers agree after a final five-day stretch in which they won at Indiana and took down the Badgers.
Most impressive, perhaps, about Sunday is that everyone here knew what it meant. The fans who stood in line understood the importance of Sunday. The Huskers knew the stakes. And still, they delivered.
“I think anybody who would be on the committee and watch that game would think, ‘Hey they’re pretty good,’” Miles said.
Nebraska is 0-6 all-time in the NCAA tournament. Miles doesn’t want to hear about the past though. He arrived just two years ago, fresh off a tournament appearance as coach at Colorado State. None of his players endured the past 15 seasons.
History means nothing to them.
“Don’t put that crap on me,” the coach said. “This is my program. We don’t carry any baggage. Everywhere I’ve been, we’ve been surrounded by great people and we win, and we’re going to keep doing it. So all that curse crap, all of the hexing and vexing and all that [stuff] that goes with it is exactly that, and you can print it, because I ignore that.
“That’s not us. That doesn’t exist. That does not exist.”
For the first time in a long time at Nebraska, he was right.