LINCOLN — Nebraska’s James Palmer did Tuesday night what first-team All-Big Ten players are supposed to do — take over a game when the outcome was in doubt.
OK, the 6-foot-6 guard isn’t a first-teamer yet.
But the league’s second-leading scorer stayed on track for that honor after pouring in 24 of his game-high 26 points in the second half to rally the Huskers to a 70-66 win over Maryland.
“He’s certainly all-conference worthy,’’ NU coach Tim Miles said, before adding with a smile: “I don’t know that I’d trade him for a lot of guys, so yeah, probably.’’
Palmer’s 24 points tied the Nebraska record for the most in a half. Four others have scored that many: Dave Hoppen in 1984, Jerry Fort in 1975, Aleks Maric in 2008 and Tyronn Lue in 1997.
Those men are NU’s No. 1, 3, 5 and 9 all-time leading scorers. They combined to earn first-team all-conference honors eight times.
Palmer’s scoring explosion, which boosted his average in Big Ten games to 20.0 points, bothered Maryland coach Mark Turgeon. But it didn’t surprise him.
“I’ve watched him since he was a sophomore in high school,’’ Turgeon said. “Nothing he did tonight surprises me.’’
The game was a mini-reunion for Palmer. He grew up 20 miles south of the Terrapins’ campus in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, and drew “just a little bit’’ of recruiting interest from Turgeon before picking Miami.
But Tuesday’s game wasn’t a red-letter event for Palmer, even though in one stretch he scored 15 straight points.
“It was just another game in my book,’’ he said. “I know some of the guys on their team. But it was nothing special.’’
For the NCAA tournament hopes of Nebraska (20-8, 11-4), however, it was gigantic.
NU now has won six in a row, eight of nine and 13 of the past 16. But posting a 20th victory in the regular season for only the sixth time in the school’s 122-year history was far from easy.
The third straight sellout crowd of 15,397 at Pinnacle Bank Arena had to sweat out the final 5:41 without a Nebraska basket after a Palmer jumper produced a 63-56 lead.
The Huskers scored just one point down the stretch until hitting 6 of 6 free throws in the final 21 seconds. So defense and rebounding became crucial.
Maryland closed to 64-63 and had the ball as the clock ticked inside one minute. Anthony Cowan, the Terrapins’ 6-foot point guard, rose for a 3-pointer. But Glynn Watson, the Huskers’ 6-foot point guard, blocked it, and teammate Evan Taylor tracked down the rebound.
On NU’s ensuing offensive possession, Watson missed a 3-pointer but forward Isaiah Roby snared the rebound and was fouled. His two free throws with 21 seconds left and two from Watson with 6.7 to go secured the win. Roby, scoreless in the first half, finished with 11 points and 10 rebounds — his second straight double-double.
Turgeon had high praise for a Nebraska defense that is third in the Big Ten in efficiency, saying: “That is a really, really good defensive team, and a really talented defensive team.’’
The Huskers found themselves in a tight game because, for the first time, the NCAA tournament talk got to them.
“I thought we were a little nervous early,’’ Miles said. “I thought the ‘moment’ kind of got to us a little bit. Both teams knew what was at stake. The gravity of that moment certainly sunk in.’’
That highlights even more the value of a cold-blooded scorer like Palmer.
He shot 1 of 6 in the first half and got benched for about four minutes for defensive errors and for settling for jump shots instead of slashing to the basket. It took 18 seconds of the second half for that to change.
Palmer hit a short jumper to tie the game at 32, added two more baskets early in the second half, then went wild starting with a tomahawk dunk with 12:43 left that put NU up 50-43.
“He got cooking,’’ Watson said.
That started a run of 15 straight points for Palmer, capped with his jump shot that put Nebraska up 63-56. He made 9 of 13 field goals in the second half.
“It’s fun playing in big games like this,’’ he said. “Everybody likes playing in big games in front of big crowds. Our crowd did a good job tonight helping us get a win.
“We came out the second half and proved we could play with anybody, and came out with the win.’’