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Northwestern's recent run of success ends in loss to Nebraska

EVANSTON, Ill. -- For most of the game, Chris Collins stood in his usual pose.

His hands were on his hips and a focused look came over his face as he balanced on his right foot with his left ankle tucked behind it.

He never looked comfortable. To him, the discomforting pose has become second-nature.

It had become routine for him to watch his team grind out wins in slow-paced, physical battles. He begins almost every press conference with the phrase "it was a battle out there," or something close to that.

On Saturday afternoon, Collins was getting what he wanted--uncomfortable for the masses, but just right for him--as Northwestern (12-12, 5-6 Big Ten) led Nebraska (12-10, 4-6) 22-16 at halftime in a classic contest at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

Except it really wasn't a "classic" contest because Northwestern had done this to teams they shouldn't beat on paper, to teams like Indiana and Wisconsin.

Nebraska, though, was different. Northwestern came into the game winning four out of its last five games, the crowd at Welsh-Ryan Arena was raucous and upbeat and Nebraska hadn't won a true road game all season. For the first time in Northwestern's Big Ten slate, the team was supposed to win.

Yet with just over six minutes left in the game, Northwestern found itself down 6 points.

JerShon Cobb drove the lane, got by his defender and ascended toward the rim for a reverse layup. Nebraska's David Rivers rose up and blocked Cobb's attempt in what may have been a goaltending violation.

"It was a tough call," Cobb said after the game as he carefully chose his words.

When that happened, Collins uncoiled from his usual stance.

"I was excited," he said.

"Excited" is one way to put it, but Collins was none too pleased with the missed call. He sensed the once-winnable game slipping away as the Cornhuskers took an 8-point lead.

On the following possessions, Drew Crawford hit back-to-back threes and Tre Demps added a layup to tie the contest at 44 and Northwestern was back in business. A fired-up Collins was fist-pumping and jumping to signal how much his team needed this win as validation that its run wasn't a fluke, that it was a real threat in the Big Ten.

"It was maybe that little bit of the fire we needed," Collins said, "for our guys to really rally and then go on that 8-point spurt."

With the game tied and under four minutes remaining, Demps pulled up for a wide-open jump shot at the free throw line. It rimmed out.

That was the moment Collins constantly alluded to after the game. It was the "margin of victory" that he so often speaks of. Today, Northwestern just didn't get it.

Nebraska went on to win 53-49.

"We're very disappointed," Collins said. "My guys put everything into this game... When you care that much and you're that invested, it hurts when you lose."

Just a couple short months ago, it was unclear as to whether Northwestern would compete at all in the Big Ten, let alone win a single game.

"We've been such big underdogs in every game... People didn't think we were going to win a game in this league, we were going to go 0-18," Collins said.

The lovable loser narrative surrounding Northwestern still sticks. And it has been Collins' goal since he first stepped foot on Northwestern to change that mantra.

"We never one time the whole year have we talked about wins and losses. We really haven't. I think what we tried to talk about this week was to stay grounded. Our guys were, and rightfully so, getting a lot praise for what they had done in the last couple weeks," Collins said.

It seemed, at least for much of the game, that the Wildcats took after their coach in their discomfort. They never looked comfortable, they almost never do.

But this time, the discomfort didn't seem like it stemmed from a basketball-related issue, it was the new-found territory known as success.

Comfort often comes with experience.