LINCOLN — The Nebraska men's basketball team, which started Big Ten play with four straight losses and fell to last place, now is one-half game away from fourth place and claiming a bye in the league tournament.
The Huskers on Sunday won for the fifth straight time and the eighth time in 10 games, drilling Purdue 76-57 to avenge a six-point loss to the Boilermakers six weeks ago.
“This is a great time to be a part of this program,” said sophomore Shavon Shields, who had 13 of his 18 points and seven of his 10 rebounds in the first half.
And he wasn't necessarily the No. 1 star.
Nebraska sophomore guard Terran Petteway, the Big Ten's leading scorer at 18 points per game, poured in 29 with three rebounds and three assists.
Sophomore forward Walter Pitchford, coming off a knee injury scare Thursday, added 10 points and five rebounds in 22 minutes.
And sophomore guard Benny Parker — all 5-foot-9 and 166 pounds of him — stirred the overflow crowd of 15,891 at Pinnacle Bank Arena by twice ripping the ball away from 7-0, 251-pound Purdue center A.J. Hammons.
“This is a blast, right?” NU coach Tim Miles asked. “This is fun. We're working hard. We're working on the right things.
“Now, enjoy success. But understand the process it takes to continue to be successful. So far, so good.”
You'll get no argument about Nebraska's in-season turnaround from Purdue coach Matt Painter.
He rubbed his head in frustration multiple times as his team fell behind by as much as 27 points. After the game, his hand figuratively moved to a position to salute the hard-charging Huskers (16-10, 8-6).
“There's no doubt they could get into the NCAA tournament and do some damage — if they can get there,” he said. “But you've got to get off 9-9.”
Why care about Painter's assessment? Experience.
He played at Purdue and has coached 10 seasons in the Big Ten, taking the Boilermakers to six NCAA tournaments, including Sweet 16s in 2009 and 2010. He knows what NCAA teams do and look like.
“(Nebraska is) pretty particular in how they play,” Painter said. “They can stretch you with Pitchford. That gets a lot of big guys, like us, in trouble.
“They are a very good defensive team. They really pack it in. They've got to keep that up defensively on the road. They are close (to a bid), but they've probably got to get one more good one.”
Having a player the caliber of Petteway helps.
“Think about a 6-7 guard who is that athletic and can go get his own shot,” Painter said. “I'm not saying we don't have quality guards in our league. But we don't have 6-7 guys who can play the point if they have to.”
After a pause, Painter added: “He's pretty damn good.”
If All-Big Ten voting were held today, Painter said, he would choose Petteway “because I vote for winners.”
Petteway said he would like to earn first-team all-conference. He could become the third Husker sophomore in the post-World War II era to do so, joining Jerry Fort (1974) and Dave Hoppen (1984).
“But I'd like to get in the tournament,” Petteway said. “That's the only thing I'm worried about right now.”
More efforts like Sunday's should keep Nebraska in the conversation.
The Huskers held Purdue (15-12, 5-9) to 30.2 percent shooting, including 18.8 percent on 3s. They also outscored the Boilermakers 19-0 off turnovers and 14-4 on fast breaks.
Nebraska, up 34-25 at half, blew the game open with a 22-7 outburst that stretched a 39-30 lead to 61-37. Capping that were a three-point play from Petteway and a lob dunk from Pitchford.
The Huskers, who are alone in sixth in the Big Ten, now are just a half-game behind fourth-place Iowa (8-5) and fifth-place Ohio State (9-6).
Miles is ready to go higher.
“I really feel,” he said, “that we can beat every team on our schedule.”
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Video: Highlights from Nebraska-Purdue