LINCOLN — Two of the top five scorers in the Big Ten squared up with the shot clock winding down.
With Purdue up 62-61, Carsen Edwards threw up a 3-pointer. James Palmer, playing just days after his grandfather’s death, tipped just enough of the ball to alter the shot. A rebound and Nebraska’s out running in transition, maybe retaking the lead with two minutes left against No. 15 Purdue.
Instead, senior Grady Eifert flew into the frame, caught the blocked shot for Purdue’s 19th offensive rebound, and threw up a prayer. It rolled in.
The Purdue bench exploded onto the court. Tim Miles turned to the bench and shook his head. Fans rolled their eyes and threw up their hands. From there, the upset slipped away.
Nebraska was close, but didn’t make enough plays down the stretch against Purdue on Saturday as the Huskers lost 75-72, their ninth defeat in 11 games.
Senior guard Glynn Watson scored a team-high 25 points for Nebraska. Edwards struggled for 13 points on 16 shots. But Purdue got scoring from eight players, including 17 from 7-foot-3 center Matt Haarms and nine from Eifert.
Before the put back off Edwards’ miss, Eifert slipped a screen, caught an inbounds pass and tossed up a shot before the shot clock buzzed. After the make, Miles spiked his water bottle next to the bench, which spilled onto the court and briefly stopped play.
“Grady’s been huge for us all year,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “His effort kind of on those 50-50 plays is something that when we were struggling to score there at the end a little bit, him getting those put backs could end up being the difference.”
Nebraska played a clean game, with just five turnovers and 41 percent shooting .
But Purdue outrebounded Nebraska 48-30 and scored 20 second-chance points
The Boilermakers (20-7) are now tied for first place in the Big Ten at 13-3. Nebraska falls to 15-13 and 5-12 in conference play.
Most of the game was a fist fight. Neither team led by more than six for 39 minutes. And contrary to what happened on Tuesday against Penn State, Nebraska responded when things got hard.
Watson carried Nebraska through the first half with 15 of NU’s first 23 points. When he went cold, Palmer finished the half with a five-point burst to keep it close. He finished with 15 points on 2-for-12 shooting. When Isaiah Roby picked up his fourth foul with 14:39 left , Amir Harris scored six points off the bench to slow a 6-0 Purdue run that looked like it might break the game open.
But Purdue’s depth and litany of ways of scoring were too much for a Nebraska team on its last leg.
“Tonight is disappointing in its own way,” Miles said. “I thought they were just a couple plays away from winning.”
Miles brought up Eifert’s name twice unprompted in his post-game press conference. He mentioned twice the bunnies missed by Nebraska’s big men down the stretch.
“Any of those things go right, and who knows?” Miles said. “Sometimes the game breaks you.”
As this disappointing season crawls to the finish, Nebraska now has to play road games against the top two teams in the Big Ten, No. 7 Michigan and No. 10 Michigan State. And has to do it during the lowest part of the year, and while the team struggles to find any hope or silver lining during this disaster of a finish.
The message, Miles said, is to win what he’s calling the Michigan State Tournament.
“What do you say: ‘Let’s play for the NIT’? You have to tell these guys, just lock into the moment. Anything can still happen,” Miles said.
Purdue, meanwhile, now has back-to-back wins on the road by three points or less. It was ugly. But you take it, Painter said.
“We came here today, we were fortunate again, but we still found a way,” he said. “That’s what good teams do.”