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Kevin McHale became so much of a Nebraska basketball fan after watching a win on Senior Night earlier this month that he predicted how March could go for his buddy Fred Hoiberg's team.

"You play that hard," Hoiberg's ex-Timberwolves coach and boss said in the locker room in Lincoln, Neb. "It's going to take someone special to beat you."

After back-to-back last place finishes in the Big Ten to start his Cornhuskers tenure, Hoiberg has coached Nebraska to one of its best seasons in team history — on pace for the program's first NCAA tournament since 2014.

McHale was right, though, about only "someone special" being able to beat the Huskers this month.

It took a Big Ten tournament-record 40 points from Terrence Shannon Jr. to erase a 15-point Nebraska lead in the second half in a 98-87 semifinal loss Saturday to Illinois at Target Center.

"I'm proud of our guys for accomplishing something that has never been done in the history of Nebraska basketball," said Hoiberg about reaching the Big Ten tournament semifinals for the first time.

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Only the second loss for the Huskers (23-10) in the last nine games shouldn't keep Nebraska from hearing its name on Selection Sunday either.

"We're going to have the opportunity to continue to compete and hopefully make a little run, right?" Hoiberg said. "Continue to do things that have never been done with this program."

Hoiberg, co-Big Ten coach of the year with Purdue's Matt Painter, enjoyed the experience of being back in Minnesota despite a tough loss Saturday. It was the same NBA floor on which he played for the Wolves from 2003-05. He then worked in the team's front office after heart surgery ended his career.

"I love being back here," Hoiberg said. "I had seven of the best years of my life in Minnesota, certainly the two best of my playing career."

Being back at the Target Center, Hoiberg recalled when Sam Cassell's hip injury possibly kept the Wolves from competing for an NBA championship, falling in the conference finals in 2004. Hoiberg still owns a house in northern Minnesota.

Hoiberg's son, Sam, is a member of the Huskers basketball team. But Sam's twin brother, Charlie, went with his mother on a "little memory tour" this past week in Minneapolis.

"It was great to be back for that and really a special place with a lot of great memories," Hoiberg said.

Hoiberg was known as "the Mayor" of Ames during his playing days starring at Iowa State. His best seasons as a head coach were also with the Cyclones, who went to four straight NCAA tournaments, including the Sweet 16 in 2014. That was the same year Tim Miles took the Huskers to their last NCAA tournament.

The rebuild of Nebraska's program was one of the most difficult in the Big Ten in years when Hoiberg took over for Miles in 2019-20. He had to fill 11 scholarships in back-to-back seasons, which led to a combined record of 14-45 overall and 5-34 in the Big Ten in his first two years.

Nebraska finally showed progress in going from 10 to 16 wins in 2022-23, highlighted by winning five of the last six regular-season games. The play of sharpshooting Japan native Keisei Tominaga during that stretch carried over into more success this year.

Much like during his time at Iowa State, Hoiberg relied on transfers to boost Nebraska. He found immediate impact players in Josiah Allick, Brice Williams and Rienk Mast, who was chosen All-Big Ten with Tominaga this season.

The Huskers opened Big Ten tournament play in exciting fashion Friday with 14 three-pointers in a resounding 93-66 win over Indiana in the quarterfinals.

Nebraska kept it rolling with a 55-40 lead in the second half Saturday before the Illini showed why they have the top offense in the nation with a furious comeback.

Hoiberg's Huskers, though, showed enough so far in March that they might not be done surprising the country with their turnaround season.

"We've shown that we can play with the best of them," Mast said. "This one stings. So I hope this one gives everybody a little bit of extra motivation to not lose anytime soon."