CHICAGO — Shavon Shields and Brandon Ubel proved to be men of their word.
By putting into practice Thursday night what they preached earlier this week, 10th-seeded Nebraska upset seventh-seeded Purdue 57-55 in the first round of the Big Ten men's basketball tournament.
Shields, a 6-foot-6 freshman, said his trip to the United Center wasn't for sightseeing but for business.
He made good on that by ripping off 15 of his game-high 19 points in the first half, stirring the crowd of 15,000.
Ubel, a 6-10 senior, missed NU's 65-56 loss to Purdue in January because of an elbow injury.
He said he thought he could make a difference this time, and he did with 16 points, eight rebounds and five assists.
So after Nebraska (15-17) nearly blew an 11-point lead and Purdue missed two shots to tie the game on its final possession, there sat Husker coach Tim Miles and his two stars in front of the Big Ten media contingent, savoring a victory few expected.
And the smiles wouldn't stop, even knowing No. 10 Ohio State awaits Friday at 5:30 p.m.
“We were picked dead last by everybody but my mom,” Miles said.
His mom didn't have a vote in the preseason poll. But of the 24 sportswriters who did, 23 put Nebraska last.
That's why Miles called Thursday night “a program win.”
“We at least outperformed that expectation,” he said. “Sometimes you've got to creep to crawl to walk to run. That's the point we're at right now. We're trying to get this team to understand the process.”
Miles didn't like the matchup with Purdue (15-17).
The Boilermakers were as hot as anyone in the Big Ten the past two weeks, and their perimeter defensive pressure was a major concern.
That heat worked against Husker scoring leaders Dylan Talley and Ray Gallegos, who combined for 14 points — half their average — and missed 11 of 16 shots.
“If you had told us that we would hold their two best shooters to nine and five points,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said, “I would have said we would have won the game.”
But that strategy also created room for Shields, averaging 8.0 points a game, to maneuver.
His 15 points in the first 20 minutes on 6 of 7 field goals and 2 of 2 free throws kept Purdue on its heels enough for NU to claim a 30-28 halftime lead.
“Shields was great the first half,” Painter said. “He played like a senior, so give him credit.”
When Shields scored the first two baskets of the second half, it ignited a 9-0 run that put Nebraska up 39-28. And the lead stayed at 11 points with 14 minutes to play.
Purdue's defensive mix-ups caused some internal tension, with Shields noting: “They were getting after each other a little bit. That was good for us.”
But “easy win” isn't in the Nebraska basketball dictionary.
“Not at all,” Shields said. “We knew they were going to come back.”
Senior D.J. Byrd, who led Purdue with 15 points, finally shook loose for two 3-pointers with 4:11 and 39 seconds left, both times cutting the Nebraska lead to one point. Those were the Boilermakers' only 3s in 12 tries.
Nebraska clanked 4 of 7 free throws in the final 52 seconds. Gallegos' 1-for-2 with 12 seconds to go gave Purdue a final chance to tie or win.
Guard Terone Johnson drove the lane, missed a floater, got his own rebound and missed again before Gallegos grabbed the rebound to end it.
“Nothing is ever easy for us,” Gallegos said. “That's just how it goes. We have to stay with it. We got stops at the end. I think that was as good a team defense as we have played.
“We made some errors, but not like we usually do.”
So Nebraska claimed just its second conference tournament victory in the past eight years. And it felt really good, Ubel said.
“When you're going in picked last, you feel like nobody believes in you but yourselves,” he said. “But we don't need anybody outside to believe in us.
“If everybody in that locker room and our coaching staff believes, we'll be fine.”
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