Last week, I wrote about Nebraska’s seniors and how they deserved a strong showing from the fans on senior day despite the up-and-down nature of their careers and the disappointment that was this season.
Well, the fans that showed up were rewarded with an incredible comeback and a big win. When I wrote that, I did not anticipate the season to still be going when it came time for me to write my next column. Yet here we are with the Huskers getting ready to take on Wisconsin in the quarterfinals, and the seniors are the driving force behind this run.
The one guy I left out of my senior tribute was walk-on Johnny Trueblood, and I feel bad about that. But then again, who could have seen this coming? The Elkhorn South product had played just 76 minutes in his career heading into senior day. Over the last three, he’s suddenly become the team’s sixth man and has played 77 minutes.
The 6-foot-3 guard has totaled eight points, 14 rebounds, eight assists and six steals in that time and is a staggering plus-48 as the Huskers have only outscored their opponents by 17 during the three wins.
In high school, Trueblood was a big-time scorer. He’s got the single-game and single-season scoring records at Elkhorn South (current and former teammate and redshirt freshman walk-on Justin Costello broke his career scoring record for the Storm). He walked on and played 28 minutes as a freshman, scoring eight points and dishing out four assists, before deciding to leave the team and simply go to school his sophomore year.
Trueblood missed the game, however, and Coach Tim Miles allowed him to rejoin the team as a junior. He scored one point in 11 minutes across seven games last season. After playing exclusively garbage time minutes through his first 28 games, Trueblood was pressed into service by the injuries and reinvented himself from a scorer into the ultimate role player. He’s moved the ball, crashed the glass, more than held his own defensively and been selective about his opportunities to shoot the ball.
It’s very unlikely that what has happened the last three games with Trueblood would have translated to a full season with him as a part of the regular rotation. Teams would have figured out a way to exploit him over the course of a season, and heck, the magic very well could run out against Wisconsin on Friday afternoon. But Trueblood and Nebraska fans alike will always have these memories when a walk-on came out of nowhere to lead the Huskers on a tournament run.
As fun as the Trueblood story has been, he’s not the only one making big contributions.
Tanner Borchardt had eight points, eight rebounds and a block in 33 minutes against Iowa. He had two points, four boards and three steals in 33 minutes against Rutgers on Wednesday. On Thursday, he led all players with nine rebounds and scored an important two points in 26 minutes, and he was a game-high plus-13.
Glynn Watson Jr. was terrific against Iowa with 23 points and seven 3-pointers, tying his career-high for triples. He wasn’t quite as good against Rutgers, finishing with 11 points on 4-of-14 shooting, but he also dished out five assists (his highest total since recording five helpers against Iowa on Jan. 6) and was plus-7 in the seven-point win. He rediscovered his shooting touch on Thursday, finishing with 19 points on 6-of-12 form the field, 3-of-5 from 3 and 4-of-6 from the line. He’s played 40 or more minutes in each of the last three games.
But the unquestioned star of this run has been James Palmer Jr. The senior All-Big Ten performer took a step back this season overall as he’s shot under 37 percent from the field, but ever since the Michigan State game he’s been playing near his ceiling.
Against Michigan on Feb. 28, Palmer scored a season-low seven points as the Huskers got run off the floor. Palmer bounced back with 30 points against the Spartans and although Nebraska lost big in that one too, Palmer’s play carried over.
On senior day, Palmer got off to a slow start, missing 11 of his first 13 shots. However, he caught fire down the stretch to lead the Huskers to a come-back win over Iowa, finishing with 27 points on 10-of-24 from the field and 5-of-11 from the foul line with six assists.
He followed that up with 34 points on 9-of-19 from the field and 14-of-22 from the line against Rutgers, scoring half of Nebraska’s points by himself. The 34 tied his career-high and set a new Big Ten Tournament record at Nebraska.
Palmer *only* scored 24 against Maryland on Thursday, but it was one of his most efficient games of the season as he shot 8-of-13 from the field including 3-of-6 from 3. It was just his fourth game of the season in which he shot better than 50 percent from the field.
Palmer has looked a lot like that First-Team All-Big Ten performer he was projected to be in the preseason than the Third-Team player he was voted as after the season, and the Huskers have won three in a row as a result.
Nebraska’s players have logged some heavy minutes over the last week. It’s going to be tough to replicate and sustain the effort from the last two games for a third straight day. It could all come to an end against the Badgers.
However, even if that is the case, the run by this rag-tag group of Huskers and their embattled coach deserves to be celebrated and remembered fondly. The last week has arguably been as impressive as anything Miles has done during his time in Lincoln, and that includes the run to the NCAA Tournament in 2014. The seniors aren’t quite ready for their careers to come to an end and are doing everything they can to prevent that, and it looks like they’re having a little bit of fun along the way.
Candid stuff from Tanner Borchardt when I asked about Nebraska's confidence now vs. last week: "We felt lost. It's embarrassing to say but there wasn't much heart… Now we're just a train. Sorry for anyone that gets in our way." More great #Huskers sound tonight on @Channel8ABC! pic.twitter.com/f7vq2O4P3y
— Jared Koller (@JaredKCTV5) March 14, 2019
Hopefully Nebraska fans are enjoying this ride just as much as the players. This wasn’t the season many were hoping for, but a strong close to the year is a nice consolation prize as opposed to the way most of the last several years have ended.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.