CHICAGO — It's hard to pick just one storyline from Nebraska's 69-61 win over No. 21 Maryland at the Big Ten Tournament, so let's just start at the beginning.
James Palmer forgot to put his jersey on.
Starting lineups had been announced and players were taking the floor at the United Center when Palmer reached down to pull off his warmup and realized the problem. He made eye contact with NU equipment manager Pat Norris, who tore down the tunnel to Nebraska's locker room and returned a few seconds later with Palmer's No. 0.
Everybody smiled. Norris high-fived everybody.
And the game was on.
Palmer scored 24 points and hit a massive three-pointer late in what turned into an incredibly high-level game, and the Huskers lived to fight another day as they turned into the biggest story going in Chicago.
Nebraska is just the second No. 13 seed to make the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament. NU will face No. 4 seed Wisconsin on Friday afternoon around 2 p.m.
Ask the Huskers, though, and they felt all along they belonged.
"Our belief out there was strong. We’re always going to come into the game thinking we’re going to win. You never come into a game thinking you’re going to lose," Palmer said. "We wanted to play hard, follow the game plan. The coaches had a great game plan, and we came out and followed that game plan and came out on top.
"The belief don’t come to reality until there’s all zeroes on the clock. We just wanted to stay focused and locked in and play the game."
Nebraska (18-15) was locked in from the start. Once again with eight players suited up and only seven getting into the game, the Huskers brilliantly executed a plan that took Maryland big men Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith out of the game offensively. Maryland didn't lead after the 12:30 mark of the first half, while the Huskers stretched their advantage to as much as 14 points.
Fernando was outscored by Nebraska walk-on Johnny Trueblood 5-3 after combining for 31 points and 36 rebounds in Maryland's previous two wins this season over NU.
Oh yeah, Trueblood again.
Early in the game, he buried a three-pointer in front of Maryland's bench and immediately turned to bark at one of the Terps. He finished with five points, four rebounds and two assists. On Palmer's massive three with 1:29 left, the 6-foot-1 Trueblood snatched a rebound away from the 6-10 Fernando and got it to Palmer for the big shot.
Trueblood's smile has infected this team the way losing did through a miserable January and February.
Funny what happens when you can play with a little joy, no matter how many guys are suited up.
"This whole little run with these guys since the end of the year makes a coach so proud," Nebraska coach Tim Miles said. "You're sitting there and it seems like you're the Black Knight in Monty Python — you lose an arm, lose a leg, pretty soon you're like, 'Come back here, you coward!' You're hemorrhaging.
"So to be in that situation, and to see these guys come back. ... Everybody is a star in their own role. Stars are stars, and role players are doing what they do. And when you get that kind of acceptance, that's what makes it cool. That mentality, that allows you to win."
Nebraska's stars — Palmer, Glynn Watson and Isaiah Roby — combined for 58 of the Huskers' 69 points, 15 of 33 rebounds and nine of 12 assists.
Watson finished with 19 points and three assists, perhaps earning a measure of payback against Maryland guard Anthony Cowan, who had been the better player in their previous two matchups.
Roby started slowly on offense for the second straight game, missing his first six shots, but he stuck with it and hit six of his final 11 to get to 15 points to go with six rebounds, three assists and three blocked shots.
Tanner Borchardt had nine rebounds and an emphatic blocked shot. Thorir Thorbjarnarson, with his father and brother traveling from Iceland to watch him play, scored four points, grabbed four rebounds, helped NU break Maryland's full-court press in the closing minutes and had a whopping five steals, which ranks fifth all-time in a single game at the Big Ten Tournament.
Everybody has to contribute for Nebraska right now. And everybody is.
"It's been really fun. I've got my dad and my brother in the stands now, and I'm really happy for them to be here and see me play," Thorbjarnarson said. "And for me personally, of course it's fun. It's always not good when you have guys out of the lineup, but you've just always got to have that next-man-up mentality."