For the Nebraska Cornhuskers, the end came too early.
Wednesday’s 53-52 loss to Oklahoma State in the first round of the Big 12 Tournament effectively sealed the Cornhuskers’ fate, jettisoning them from an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament and ending their history in the Big 12.
“The NCAA option is out,” Nebraska head coach Doc Sadler told reporters after the loss. “That’s not an option, unless somebody’s really looking out for us.”
After senior point guard Lance Jeter slipped and fell on Nebraska’s final possession with the Huskers down by one, the emotion set in.
“It’s sad because I wanted to do it for [the seniors] because I know how hard they worked and how hard the coaching staff works,” Jeter said. “You just want to be the hero, and unfortunately, that wasn’t the case at that time.”
With his team behind, Jeter slithered through traffic and tried to pull up for a jump shot in the paint, but he crumbled to the hardwood and the buzzer sounded.
“Pretty much got tripped,” Jeter said. “No call, which it shouldn’t be, especially in the last second. You gotta make a play, and I didn’t do that.”
The lasting memory of Nebraska’s time in the conference may be Jeter’s fall, but the Cornhuskers may have avoided the inevitable as they would have faced top-seeded Kansas in the second round.
Instead, that honor lies with Oklahoma State.
“Very proud of our basketball team,” OSU head coach Travis Ford said after the game. “It’s always great to win, but it’s great to win when your whole team contributes, your whole team does something positive.”
The Cowboys relied on a balanced attack and a couple of timely 3-pointers by junior guard Keiton Page to escape with the win. It was the Pokes’ third conference game decided by one point, and Oklahoma State didn’t give up down the stretch once again.
“Out of 16 conference games, I think six or seven came down to the last possession,” Ford explained. “I said, ‘We’ve been here before, but don’t hang your head.’ I don’t know if they were hanging their head because they were tired, which they were, or they were hanging their head because we played so well and then we’re down four.”
While the Cowboys led for much of the game, Nebraska stormed back in the second half to take the lead.
After a layup by Nebraska’s Caleb Walker extended the Cornhusker lead to four with six minutes to play, Ford called a time out. Inside the Cowboys’ huddle, the coach lit a fire under his squad.
“We told them, ‘Get your head up. Let’s come out of this time out fighting; let’s come out of this time out and let’s get a stop every single time,’” Ford said.
The Cowboys didn’t disappoint as Page sank back-to-back 3-pointers, and Nebraska went cold from the field, giving OSU a two-point advantage with 2:29 left to play.
But the Huskers failed to rally in the final minutes, and Jeter’s last-ditch effort came up devastatingly short, sending Nebraska fans to the exits at the Sprint Center.
The Cornhuskers were the first team ousted from the Big 12 tournament but will take their talents to the Big Ten next season as conferences realign.
Perhaps then Nebraska can avoid the slipups that plagued its final season in the Big 12.