Almeida’s Heart Gives Seniors ‘Huge’ Legacy

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Andre Almeida’s mother and girl friend escort him to center court on Senior Day.

Huskers Close Regular Season at Iowa

By Randy York

When you’re 6-foot-11 and weigh 314 pounds, some people call you Andre the Giant instead of Andre Almeida. The senior center from Sao Paulo, Brazil, via Arizona Western College, is a handsome and humble block of granite, especially in the eyes of his mother and his girlfriend, both of whom escorted him onto the floor for Wednesday’s Senior Night finale that also became the last college basketball game ever played inside the Devaney Center.

The human heart pumps hard when two primary senior leaders, Brandon Ubel and Dylan Talley, are sitting on the bench in foul trouble and prime time calls your name. Andre’s moment of truth finally arrives after spending the season nursing chronic knee and ankle injuries. “He came in and played his ass off,” Ubel said. “He came in knowing if we were going to win that game, he had to be a presence, and that’s exactly what he was. He got tough rebounds. He blocked shots. He protected the paint. He was huge for us.”

Common sense tells you that no one can play that huge with that much pressure without something else. “There is no question … ‘Dre’ has a huge heart, and he was huge for us,” Ubel said. “One of the biggest keys in the game was keeping Minnesota out of the paint, and he did an absolutely unbelievable job of that.”

Almeida’s Motivation: His Own Health

Isn’t it interesting how a heart that weighs between 7 and 15 ounces can turn a basketball game completely around? As big as Andre is, his heart weighs about the same as four medium-sized bananas. Hearts are about the size of a fist, and Wednesday night, that fist almost punched its way through a giant chest. With a mom who lives in Brazil and a girlfriend who was a Nebraska student-athlete each taking one of Andre’s arms, all three headed to center court where the honoree received his senior gift – a large framed print of one of the Huskers’ largest basketball players ever.

Once his number was called, someone sitting near me speculated that the romantic melody of the Brazilian national anthem must have triggered Almeida’s emotions, but Ubel knows better. “Dre is finally healthy, and he had two good weeks of practice,” he said. “It was his job to do what he did. He finished some tough plays for us and really gave us the spark and all the energy we needed to win.”

Ubel and Talley became Almeida’s biggest supporters from the bench. “With our foul troubles, Dylan and I easily could have been frustrated,” Ubel said, “but we were too busy watching Dre get all those loose balls, offensive rebounds and blocked shots. I mean, Dylan and I really got excited on the bench. We both knew we probably weren’t going to get back on the court that first half, but that didn’t stop us from going crazy on the sideline. We were extremely happy not only for Dre but because we knew we needed him to win.”

Talley came back to play well, and Ubel ended up scoring Nebraska’s last 10 points in a dramatic upset over a Golden Gopher team that a week earlier had upset No. 1 Indiana. In the post-game locker room, Nebraska Coach Tim Miles told all three seniors the game ball would honor them. Miles asked each player to sign the ball, so it could commemorate the significance of the last college game ever played in the Devaney Center. Not bad for a Division I basketball program which has won more than 75 percent of its home games over 37 years. And thank goodness that Ethan Rowley in Marketing and Shamus McKnight in Media Relations tracked and retrieved the ball that went skyward the second the final buzzer sounded.

Trophy Case Will House This Game Ball

“You can’t write a script any better than that one,” Ubel said. “For all three seniors to play well at different times so we could win such an historic game was huge. I can’t imagine it happening to a better group of guys. When Coach told us he was going to make sure that game ball got in our trophy case, it was pretty cool. To be remembered forever with two guys like Dylan and Dre, I just can’t think of anything better.”

As honored and excited as Ubel was, he said the seniors and their teammates could not go to bed satisfied Wednesday night. They knew they had to wake up with one thought in mind Thursday morning – sweep the Huskers’ regular-season series with the Hawkeyes. “We’ve been totally focused on Iowa,” Ubel said. “Minnesota is a distant memory. We’re not out there to play spoiler. We’re out there to get something for ourselves.”

The Hawkeyes are heavily motivated as well. At 19-11 overall and 8-9 in the Big Ten, they can notch win No. 20 and finish the mine field regular season at .500. Two weeks ago, Nebraska upset Iowa, 64-60, in Lincoln, and earlier this week, the Hawkeyes defeated Illinois, 63-55.

Husker Seniors Don’t Want Road to End

“If we want to get to postseason play, we have to win at Iowa and win at least one if not two in the conference tournament,” Ubel said. “We understand that. We all know we had to beat Minnesota first but that wasn’t the task and it isn’t the end. We have goals, too.”

Ubel figures it’s going to take the best of every Husker’s approximate 100,000 daily heartbeats to defeat a new rival twice in the same season, especially when that rival sits on the NCAA Tournament bubble. Who knows which team faces the most pressure? Maybe, just maybe, NU’s three seniors will play well at the same time. Tipoff is 1:21 p.m. Saturday in Iowa City. With the home team’s head coach seeking career victory No. 300, the Huskers know the Hawkeyes will be at their best. That means Nebraska cannot afford Ubel and Talley spending too much time on the bench, even if they would be cheering wildly for a giant-sized teammate and his hulking heart. To win, Nebraska’s season-long senior starters will have to show the same kind of heart that inspired them … the heart that came to life when his team needed it most.

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