KANSAS CITY, Mo. – This is why conference tournaments matter.
The relative worth of these post-season gatherings is a topic that could be debated here at the Phillips 66 Big 12 Men’s Championship because there is no NCAA Tournament bubble drama. The seven Big 12 teams that are going to the Big Dance have already earned the invitation.
But Wednesday afternoon in Game Two, No. 12 seed Nebraska compensated for the most conference losses in school history with a 75-60 upset of fifth-seeded Missouri. The victory means the Cornhuskers get to stick around K.C. for another day and will face No. 4 seed Texas A&M at 2 p.m. Thursday.
The Tigers (22-10) had defeated the Huskers by scores of 70-53 and 74-59. In those losses, Nebraska shot 40 percent from the field and 31.2 percent from 3-point range. In the Sprint Center, the Huskers’ 55.8 percent shooting (57.1 percent from beyond the arc) was just what the Doc ordered.
“It’s been a tough season but this team has continued to compete and show great character,” Nebraska coach Doc Sadler said. “Today we just made some plays and shot the basketball well. We wanted to shoot layups or stand-still 3-pointers and nothing in between.”
A smart plan, well executed. Nebraska turned Missouri’s pressure to its advantage. The Tigers’ full-court press produced little in the way of easy basket and the half-court pressure, which features over playing and double teams, worked in the Huskers’ favor.
The Tigers couldn’t muster any offensive momentum to counter Nebraska’s shooting efficiency.
“Today seemed like it was Murphy's law, what could go wrong would go wrong,” said Missouri senior guard J.T. Tiller. “Everything they were putting up there was going in. It was their day and they really wanted this game and it really showed in the results.”
From the first basket – a 3-pointer from the corner by Brandon Richardson – Nebraska was able to knock down perimeter shots. They finished 8-of-14 and always seemed to produce a 3-pointer when needed.
“The first two games against Missouri, we had a low percentage of when we ran our offense,” said Richardson, who finished with a career-high 19 points. “We made ‘em play our game because we ran our offense.”
Richardson was involved in one of the three seminal moments in the Nebraska victory. The Tigers had clawed to within 61-51 when Richardson made a 3-pointer from the left wing. He was fouled and converted the free throw for a four-point play that made it 64-51 with 3:23 remaining.
“The credit on that play goes to (Brian Jorge Diaz),” Richardson said. “Missouri committed two guys to him. He kicked it out to me and I made the shot.”
The other two key plays: Late in the first half, Nebraska’s lead, once 17 points, had been cut to 36-26. With the shot clock winding down, point guard Lance Jeter beat the buzzer with a 3-pointer. And early in the second half, Jeter missed a breakaway layup. The ball was batted twice before Anderson slapped it in to put Nebraska ahead, 52-33.
“I thought Nebraska was much hungrier than our basketball team,” Missouri coach Mike Anderson said. “They played hard. They got every loose ball. I thought they played looser. I thought they played with nothing to lose and everything to gain. I just didn't think we had the energy that you gotta have in a tournament setting.”
The Huskers had four players score in double figures (Missouri had one) and all four surpassed their season averages. Nebraska also had a commanding 38-22 edge on the boards. What coaches call “50-50 possessions” – loose balls, rebounds – isn’t an official stat but Nebraska had a big edge there as well.
“That’s the only chance we’ve got,” Sadler said. “If we’re not going to get those 50-50 balls, we were gonna have tough time beating Missouri.
“There’s not much room between our backs and the wall right now.”