Hoosiers edge Huskers to claim Big Ten title
Indiana completes sweep of regular season, tourney titles; Nebraska's season ends
MINNEAPOLIS -- Indiana head coach Tracy Smith has never been one to have his teams write out a list of goals.
But whether it was his budding feeling that this year's team had a "chance to do something pretty special" or a simple desire to change things up, Smith decided to have his players lay out a few specific standards for which they would measure the success of their season.
Indiana slowly added checkmarks to that list, starting with a series victory against perennial national power Florida early and eventually moving on to the capture of the Big Ten regular-season title.
With that, it was on to item No. 3: win the Big Ten Tournament for the third time in school history.
And No. 14 Indiana got to cross that one off on Sunday, but it came in narrow and dramatic fashion.
Scott Donley's ninth-inning single to center field brought in Will Nolden with the winning run to finish off a 4-3 Indiana victory, setting off a celebration around Donley as the Hoosiers finally subdued Nebraska to cap off the first Big Ten Tournament at Target Field.
"As soon as Donley hit the ball, I knew we had won the game. There's no better feeling than winning a championship," said first baseman Sam Travis, who was named the tournament's most valuable player after posting nine hits and eight RBIs in four games.
Indiana had to contend with a furious run by the upstart Huskers, who needed to complete their tourney comeback from near elimination in order to keep their season alive with an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Tanner Lubach's walk-off, 11th-inning home run on Saturday put Nebraska on the brink of doing so, forcing top-seeded Indiana into a deciding second title game.
But the Hoosiers didn't falter, overcoming numerous Nebraska rallies to cement not only the conference title, but also their spot in the NCAA Tournament.
A resilient complete game by Indiana starting pitcher Will Coursen-Carr proved to be a crucial balancing force as the Hoosiers tried to break through against Nebraska's strong, but tired pitching staff. Coursen-Carr, whose longest previous appearance was 6 2/3 innings, soldiered through a 127-pitch, eight-hit performance.
After Nebraska had started wearing down Coursen-Carr with back-to-back runs in the seventh and eighth innings, Smith stuck by his starter in a critical situation. The gamble was rewarded with three quick outs.
"I was tired, but throwing strikes was what I needed to do," Coursen-Carr said. "For the most part, I did that. … I was confident that if I got those last three outs in the ninth inning we'd come through."
Huskers reliever Josh Roeder was unable to record an out in the ninth, watching Nolden's leadoff double and a pair of walks set Donley up for his clutch hit.
Nebraska, well aware of its must-win scenario, refused to fade after rebounding from an early tourney loss to Ohio State by grinding out four straight victories in a two-day span.
Nebraska starter Kyle Kubat, back on the mound four days after throwing a one-hitter against Michigan in the tourney's opening round, was strong again against the Big Ten's best offense.
Kubat's lone blemish came in the third inning when Travis' RBI double created a 1-0 advantage for the Hoosiers. But Nebraska bounded back two innings later when senior Bryan Peters followed his leadoff triple by scoring the tying run on a single from second baseman Pat Kelly.
A botched throw by Kelly opened the door for a two-run burst from Indiana in the sixth inning that resulted in a 3-1 deficit. Once again, the Huskers rallied to tie the game, but they could not get the key go-ahead hit with Coursen-Carr seemingly on the verge of giving way.
It was a bitter end for Nebraska after its gritty comeback had displayed the renewed direction the program appears to be headed under second-year coach Darin Erstad
"I'm not turning the page [to next year] yet. This one stings a little bit," said Erstad, a former two-time Major League All-Star with the Angels. "I'm a baseball guy. Tomorrow is a new day, but right now this stinks. I feel really bad for our guys. I don't believe in the participation award. That's what we got today. That's a tough one to handle."
Prevailing in the five-day tournament held a bit of added significance for the Hoosiers given the backdrop of Target Field -- the first Major League ballpark to host the Big Ten Tournament.
"I'm from Cincinnati and I love Great American Ballpark," Hoosiers senior shortstop Michael Basil said. "I would always say it was the best ballpark in the country, but this is right up there with it, if not better. It's definitely special to get to play on a big league field like this, and in this setting. It makes it feel bigger any time you get to play in a place like this."
While claiming both the regular season and Big Ten Tournament titles have been major milestones for Indiana, there is still one item on that preseason list that has yet to be checked off.
"All season long, we've been talking about Omaha. It's been a goal," Basil said. "We think we are a College World Series-caliber team. If we play our best baseball, we have all the talent to get there."
Nate Sandell is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.