There was a
chance to force
But as it turns out, coach Barry Collier's job wasn't riding on his star freshman's stroke or the outcome of the game and NU's season. Athletic Director Steve Pederson informed the embattled fifth-year coach the night before he was staying, thanks in large part to a nationally-ranked recruiting class.
McCray's shot rattled around the rim before popping out, giving the ninth-seeded Tigers a 70-67 and likely ending the eighth-seeded Huskers' season at 14-14. Had the shot fallen, it would have completed a 16-point second-half comeback.
It was as good of a look as I could get," McCray said. "It felt like a knife just stabbed me through the heart."
Collier knows the feeling well. He's had many of these heartbreaking losses while compiling a 70-77 record at NU and never cracking .500 in conference play. Unless NU is invited to the NIT – and no Big 12 team with a .500 record has – Collier will have just one winning record and one postseason appearance in his five years.
But he is safe. It's seniors like guard Jake Muhleisen that are taking the loss the hardest.
"We thought we could break through this year, but we just couldn't get the job done," Muhleisen said. "(Today) we had to dig ourselves from too big a hole."
Slowly but surely, the Huskers came to life. Forward John Turek had a put-back, a block, a rebound, and an assist in a two-minute stretch that keyed an 8-0 run. The assist was to Charles Richardson, who nailed a three-pointer to make it 51-46 with 10:37 left.
After 10 first-half turnovers, NU had zero in the second half.
"In the second half, we were able to get it in transition," forward Jason Dourisseau said. "We got some easy baskets and were able to claw our way back."
Over the next ten minutes, NU got no closer than four points until senior Jake Muhleisen put back a Dourisseau miss with one minute left to make it 69-67. Thirty-five seconds later, reserve forward Bronson Schliep stole an in-bounds pass and called timeout for NU to set up a tie or winning bucket.
Instead, Dourisseau drove, missed a five-foot bank shot, and Wes Wilkinson fouled Kleiza on the rebound with nine seconds left. Kleiza made one of two free throws, and guard Charles Richardson brought the ball down to set up McCray's attempt at a tie.
The team's leading scorer and a member of the Big 12's newcomer first team let if fly, and barely missed, leaving him with a team-high 20 points. Dourisseau added 18.
This loss mirrored NU's season. As usual, NU was dominated in the paint, outscored 34-22. Freshman center Aleks Maric was a threat early, but got into foul trouble and finished with just seven points, watching a good chunk of the second half from the bench.
As usual, the Huskers said they didn't match their opponent's intensity early. It left them thinking "what if" afterward.
What if they would not have turned it over six times on their first nine possessions of the game? What if they would have not missed short jump shots or lay-ups on five straight possessions shortly thereafter? What if they would not have dug themselves a 16-point hole to begin with?
"We didn't have the intensity we were supposed to," McCray said.
And if the NIT committee gives the Huskers new life?
"We'll play hard from the beginning, not just go through the motions," McCray said.