Husker columnist

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

James Palmer dunks against Maryland

Nebraska guard James Palmer (24) dunks for two of his 26 points over Maryland’s Anthony Cowan (bottom) in the second half Tuesday at Pinnacle Bank Arena.

FRANCIS GARDLER, JOURNAL STAR

James Palmer had a rather quiet outing Saturday against Rutgers, and had only two points at halftime Tuesday night.

So much for the quiet, though.

The Nebraska junior guard — a 6-foot-6 picture of athletic efficiency — scored 24 points in the second half, carrying his team's hopes of making the NCAA Tournament on his back in a 70-66 triumph against Maryland.

An uncomfortable buzz was in the air much of the second half at Pinnacle Bank Arena. It's a beautiful sound if you're a sports fan. It means the contest has meaning. It means talented players are going to have to respond under immense pressure. 

For Palmer, it might as well have been noon hour at the YMCA, such was his calm before 15,397 spectators. This was his court. His game. His world. No way Nebraska (20-8, 11-4 Big Ten) has its sixth 20-win regular season in program history without him. Not on this night, anyway.

Another stat comes to mind: Nebraska's had only four all-conference players during the past 20 years:

* 1998 — Tyronn Lue, a cat-quick guard with a high hoops IQ.

* 1999 — Venson Hamilton, an unassuming big man, whose fluid athleticism was something to behold.

* 2008 — Aleks Maric, a hard-working center who improved his offensive efficiency significantly as he matured in the program.

* 2014 — Terran Petteway, a rangy swing man with a swashbuckling style and quick trigger.

Now, ladies and gentleman, we give you James Palmer, a deluxe glider who perplexed Maryland defenders to the tune of 10-for-19 field-goal shooting, including 9-for-13 in the second half.

He entered the night averaging a team-leading 17.6 points per game with 15 as a low in the past nine games.

"It would be a travesty if he wasn't first-team All-Big Ten," said Dave Hoppen, Nebraska's all-time leading scorer and a three-time All-Big Eight selection in the 1980s. "I don't know if enough media around the league know enough about him. But I can tell you this: The coaches would put him on the first team. He's been consistent enough to warrant being first-team All-Big Ten."

Palmer gets plenty of help. The starting five for Nebraska can play with any team in the country, says Jon Crispin of BTN.

So, let's cut to the chase here, so to speak: It would be a shame if these guys failed to reach the Big Dance. This is a team built to win in March.

While we're on the subject, perhaps you saw the stat floating around this week: No Big Ten team with at least 20 wins overall and fewer than seven conference losses has missed the NCAA Tournament.

Nebraska has three regular-season games remaining — Sunday at Illinois, Tuesday vs. Indiana and Feb. 25 vs. Penn State.

So, just keep winning, baby.

Just keep building as strong a case as possible without letting blown opportunities earlier in the season — i.e., close losses to Creighton and Kansas — gnaw at your positive energy.

And, yeah, keep feeding Palmer when he finds rhythm. He had more rhythm than Miami Sound Machine on this night. He was doing the conga throughout the second half, and Maryland (17-11, 6-9) had no answers.

Because Palmer didn't put up big numbers at Miami — he averaged 3.6 points in two seasons there — Hoppen didn't know quite what to expect.

"He's given Nebraska a person we've not had for quite a while, and that's a guy you can give the ball to at the end of the shot clock and just say, 'Go get us a basket,'" Hoppen said. "He'll either drive the ball to the hoop and get fouled or finish, or hit a three-pointer."

Or he might hit a mid-range jumper. Or drive and dish. He can make a lot happen.

Hoppen, though, makes an important point in that regard.

"He doesn't do it in a way that's, 'It's all about me,'" Hoppen said. "He's very unselfish."

Palmer is strong and deceptively quick with the ball.

"He doesn't have the quickest first step. He's not the fastest guy, yet he really has that ability to get to the basket, get contact and still be strong enough and hold the ball long enough to finish," Hoppen said. "That's a unique skill."

That's a separator — something that gives Palmer an edge over someone like the 6-6 Petteway or even 6-6 Jaron Boone, who ranks seventh on the school's career scoring list.

"James is a phenomenal player, but he's only 20-some games into his career here at Nebraska, so I don't know if we want to put him way up there (with the all-time greats)," Hoppen said.

Not just yet. That time is coming, assuming Palmer returns to campus for next season.

Scrap that talk, though. This season's team belongs in the Dance. Nebraska fans sense it. They want it badly, hence the nervous energy in the building.

It evidently didn't affect Palmer. It was his world. His night. Oh, what a night.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraSip.

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