Nebraska men’s basketball had been here before. 59 days ago, to be exact.
On Jan. 2, the Huskers were presented with a prime opportunity to close out a home victory against then-No. 13 Ohio State at Pinnacle Bank Arena. The Huskers trailed for over 30 minutes in that matchup with the Buckeyes before a late-game push, which culminated in a 72-67 Nebraska lead with 36 seconds remaining.
Much like the trajectory of the program at the time, it was a mirage. Nebraska allowed a quick 3-pointer then missed consecutive free throws. On the defensive end, the Buckeyes converted two free throws to take the game to overtime, where Nebraska promptly fell apart in overtime in another heartbreaking defeat.
History has a funny way of repeating itself.
On March 1, Nebraska was doing it again. Against the same opponent, too. The Huskers summoned a force unrealized for a majority of the season — save for Sunday’s utterly dominant road win at Penn State — and were the aggressors on the road against the No. 23 team in college basketball.
Head coach Fred Hoiberg’s team got on the floor for loose balls, forced turnovers and defended with an incredible intensity. After building a 43-39 halftime lead, Nebraska limited the Buckeyes to 9-of-25 from the field and 2-of-12 from 3-point range in the final 20 minutes of play.
It still almost wasn’t enough. After a flurry of brilliance from Nebraska senior guard Alonzo Verge Jr., the Huskers held a 73-62 lead with 3:33 remaining in front of a stunned crowd at Value City Arena. A devastating stepback 3-pointer sparked a stretch of nine consecutive Husker points scored by the Arizona State transfer, and Nebraska appeared to have its first victory over a ranked opponent since March 2019 all-but locked up.
Then senior guard Jamari Wheeler made a jumper, junior forward EJ Liddell poured in two of his game-high 27 points and freshman guard Malaki Branham made three free throws in two separate trips to the line. Ohio State trailed 73-69 with 55 seconds remaining.
The Buckeyes opted to foul immediately and, exactly like the first meeting between the two squads, Nebraska junior forward Lat Mayen went to the free-throw line looking to ice the game. Mayen’s redemption story didn't fully materialize, missing one of two free throws to leave the door open for the Buckeyes.
A missed Lidell 3-pointer on the ensuing Ohio State possession, following two made free throws from Husker freshman guard Bryce McGowens, slammed the door shut.
When the dust settled, the Huskers had done the unthinkable. Nebraska’s 78-70 win over Ohio State marked its first win over a ranked opponent in 24 tries, gave Hoiberg his third road win of his Nebraska tenure after having just one entering the Penn State game and cemented McGowens’ place among college basketball’s top freshmen.
The former five-star recruit made an impact immediately in the decisive second half, following up a first half in which he scored 12 points on 3-of-7 shooting. Following two Liddell free throws, McGowens glided down the court and threw down a thunderous dunk to give the Huskers a 45-41 lead with 19:32 remaining.
It set the stage for a half in which McGowens was even more brilliant than he was in the first. Another McGowens dunk and a baseline jumper gave the Huskers a 53-43 lead just four minutes into the second half. When Liddell keyed a Buckeye response with a 3-pointer to halve the Husker advantage, McGowens hit a long-range bomb to give Nebraska a 56-48 advantage.
McGowens’ 26-point performance was especially impressive given the nature of his freshman compatriot on the Buckeye bench, Branham. Entering Tuesday's contest, much was made about the potential battle between the two burgeoning stars.
The seven-time Big Ten Freshman of the Week might’ve locked up a more significant award following yet another virtuoso performance from the Husker talisman.
“I just wanted to win. Just having a chance to come out and compete again — everybody steps on the floor to win,” McGowens said postgame about his matchup with Branham. “The rest will take care of itself.”
Another Husker freshman, guard CJ Wilcher, posted a crucial 15 points off the bench. When Ohio State took an early seven-point lead in the first half, Wilcher brought Nebraska right back with consecutive 3-pointers. His 13 first-half points were absolutely paramount in Nebraska’s four-point halftime advantage.
Then there was Verge, who had undoubtedly his finest performance in a Husker uniform on Tuesday night. Ohio State hadn’t allowed a player to eclipse the five-assist mark all season, and Verge did so in the first half. He finished with 13 points, 11 assists and, most importantly, one turnover.
Yes, Ohio State was shorthanded. Buckeye sophomore forward Zed Key, a critical part of Ohio State’s rotation, missed the contest against Nebraska with injury. Senior forward Kyle Young missed the second half of the Nebraska contest with an illness, per the Big Ten Network broadcast. Buckeye head coach Chris Holtmann was forced to dig deep down his bench for healthy options, and the Huskers took full advantage.
On the flip side, foul trouble forced the Huskers to operate out of their comfort zone. Junior forward Derrick Walker managed just 13 minutes due to picking up fouls, and Nebraska frequented a small-ball lineup centered around Mayen — which worked to varying degrees of success.
At the end of the day, what matters is that the Huskers came away with an incredible momentum-building victory. Nebraska might have its toughest road test yet on Sunday at No. 10 Wisconsin, as the team tries to extend its winning streak to three games, but Hoiberg’s team is plenty content with reveling in the incredible upset.
“I’m just really proud of our guys for their resilience, they come in and continue to work in a tough season,” Hoiberg said postgame. “Not ideal the way we closed it out, but we haven’t been in that situation before… I’m proud of how our guys have continued to work through difficult circumstances.”