INDIANAPOLIS -- As Zak Showalter sat in a fold-up chair situated in the Wisconsin Badgers' makeshift locker room inside of Bankers Life Fieldhouse, his demeanor matched that of many of his teammates. He stared blankly into the other end of the locker room, shook his head, then pointed it downward toward the carpeted floor, where two ice bags resting on his ankles were indicative of the Badgers' entire night: ice-cold.
It was partly astonishing, really, how Wisconsin looked like a completely different team than it had for the past two months against the underdog Nebraska Cornhuskers in Thursday's Big Ten tournament second-round game.
There was no doubt that Nebraska brought the intensity on this evening. And even though Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard warned his team that would be the case, the Badgers weren't prepared for it.
"I don't think we heeded his advice," forward Vitto Brown said. "He told us that they want to come out with passion and fire, and I think we downplayed their abilities in the beginning. And we were kind of surprised at how hard they were going on both ends of the floor."
The Badgers are headed back to Madison after dropping their conference tournament opener in forgettable fashion to the Cornhuskers, 70-58.
Seeded No. 11 in the conference, the Huskers suffocated the No. 6 Badgers' room to breathe on offense and thrashed Wisconsin on the other end with drives to the rim.
"They just played hard and we didn't do a good enough job of squeezing those driving lines," Brown said. "We allowed them to get way too many easy drives to the basket."
Shavon Shields scored 20 points and three other Nebraska players finished in double digits. Forward Ethan Happ led the Badgers with 17 points, but turned the ball over five times, and Brown scored 16 points.
"Sometimes you don't make shots," Showalter said. "Tonight, we missed a lot of shots. They made more than we did, got some better looks than we did."
The Badgers shot just 30.2 percent from the field and missed 16 of 20 three-point attempts on the evening. It started early and never got better.
Wisconsin shot 7-for-24 (29.4 percent) in the first half as a team; however, aside from Brown, who was a perfect 5-for-5, the Badgers shot 2-for-19. Then, over the final 20 minutes, Nebraska had an answer for every run Wisconsin put together.
"I think the biggest thing was every time we clawed back, we gave them free points," Gard said. "...I saw a lot of uncharacteristic things happening tonight that haven't been present when we've been playing well."
Playing well? Ah, yes. Just last week, the Badgers were winners of 11 out of 12 and among the hottest teams in the nation. But following a loss at Purdue in the regular season finale, Wisconsin has now reversed the trend.
Not only will Wisconsin want to erase this one from their minds, they may need to with the NCAA Tournament looming next weekend.
"As I told the team, you got one more [chance]," Gard said. "You can put the jersey on one more time."
Wisconsin lost its second consecutive game for the first time since dropping three in a row early duing a 1-4 start to the conference season . The loss also marks the first time the Badgers failed to reach the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament since 1999.
It was evident from the game's onset that the Cornhuskers were going to pose a problem.
In the first half, Wisconsin appeared to be all kinds of out of sort. Aside from Brown, who scored 13 points on 5-for-5 shooting, the team missed 16 of 18 field goals as the Badgers trailed 26-21 entering the intermission.
Outside of a 8-0 run to gain a brief 29-27 lead, little changed in the second half. Wisconsin was able to chip away at the Cornhuskers advantage, but those runs were not met on the defensive end.
Every time that the Badgers would draw within one basket, the Cornhuskers would respond right back. It happened over and over until their short-lived stay in Indianapolis came to an end.
After taking the lead with 16:37 to play, Nebraska scored five consecutive points. Wisconsin drew within one point at 34-33, but soon found itself down four points. Then five. Then six.
As they have all season long, the Badgers fought back, drawing within two points at 46-44 with 8:54 remaining on a Happ layup. The Cornhuskers then rattled off five unanswered points on a layup by Tai Webster and a Shields three-point play to go up by seven.
Two pairs of free throws by Showalter and Brown cut the lead to three points once again at the 7:15 mark, and a Bronson Koenig step-back jumper had the deficit at the same margin just over two minutes later.
Wisconsin, however, wouldn't get any closer as guards Glynn Watson Jr. and Benny Parker scored all of Nebraska's points on a 14-6 run to seal the victory.
The last chance for the Badgers came down by six with just over a minute to play. Happ passed up what looked to be a good look for a basket and instead tried to dish between defenders to Hayes. The ball was tipped and went back to Happ, who couldn't finish through the swarm of bodies that had gathered around him.
After that, all Wisconsin had was a prayer. It wasn't answered.
The Huskers had the Badgers out-of-sync all night long. A team used to wearing down opponents with its inside-out attack, Wisconsin never got in that rhythm.
"We deviated in terms of what has made us good," Gard said.
A lot of that deviation, though, was simply missed jumpers. The backcourt of Koenig and Showalter went 1-for-9 from deep. Add Hayes to the picture, and that number is a crooked 1-for-15.
"When you're not able to knock down those looks from the arc, it makes it tough in the post and they can double guys all night," Hayes said.
No conference tournament championship will be added to the upper-deck façade at the Kohl Center, but the good news for the Badgers is that their season carries on next weekend in the Big Dance--or, at least, it should.
Rebounding from strong disappointment is nothing new to Wisconsin, which opened the season at 9-9. Now, it will have one week to recompose.
"I think we'll be alright," Showalter said. "It just stings for a little bit."
Nebraska scored .986 points per possession compared to Wisconsin's meager .813. The Cornhuskers also dominated points in the paint, 30-12 and out-rebounded the Badgers by five.
Koenig scored 11 points and Hayes, who struggled mightily from the field, went 2-for-15 and finished with 10 points.
Sitting in his locker, Hayes summed up the game as best as he could.
"We dug ourselves a hole and we weren't able to get out," Hayes said.
If they want their season to go much further, the Badgers had better find a way to dig themselves out.