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February 28, 2012

Nebraska says farewell to four unique senior leaders

Some seniors get to end their collegiate careers by walking off into the sunset with successful, sometimes even championship final seasons.

Then you have a group like Nebraska's four seniors.

For Brandon Richardson, Toney McCray, Caleb Walker and Bo Spencer, their final season as Huskers has been one of the most difficult for the program in recent memory.

At just 12-15 overall and 4-12 in the their first run through the Big Ten Conference, and their head coach, Doc Sadler, sitting directly on the hot seat, this hasn't been at all how the four pictured their senior years going.

As disappointing as the season has been in terms of wins and losses, though, the one thing Nebraska's seniors can still hang their hats on is the fact that through it all, they never let the team give up.

"I think more than anything, that's the disappointing thing, because from Day 1 last spring I think they've done that," Sadler said. "Again - not to use excuses, because as you guys know, that's not what I'm about - it hasn't gone their way, and it's not their fault. So I hope we don't go through this again, that's for sure, but if you do go through it, and at some point in their life they're going to go through some tough times, then they will handle it like they've handled this."

The most experienced member of Nebraska's senior class is Richardson, who will play in his 117th career game and make his 70th career start Wednesday on Senior Night against Iowa.

The 6-foot guard from Los Angeles has essentially been of one NU's veteran leaders since his sophomore year, and he's won over countless Husker fans with his relentless defensive play and unrivaled toughness.

The fifth-year senior comes into Wednesday night's game ranked third in the Big Ten with 1.9 steals per game and second with 141 career steals, and his 82.5 career free throw percentage currently ranks third on the school's all-time chart.

"He has been one of those guys that each and every day has prepared himself to be successful, not just on the court, but off the court," Sadler said. "He's nine hours away from graduating, and he should take care of that in May, and that's what it's supposed to be about anyway."

Richardson said that while this season has been tough to deal with, he has no regrets from his time as a Husker.

"In sports or in life, you have to fight through adversity," Richardson said. "When you go through things, you have to be mentally strong and push forward. Nothing's going to be easy. You have to put on your hardhat and go to work. You don't make excuses. That's what I've been taught to live by. That's what I will continue to live by."

McCray is another fifth-year senior who has seen more than his share of ups and downs over the course of his career.

After redshirting his first year 2007-08, the 6-6 guard from Missouri City, Texas, got his career off to a nice start as a redshirt freshman the following season. However, McCray suffered an elbow injury early in his sophomore year that forced him to miss all but three games.

He came back with a nice season as a junior last year, but injuries to his feet and toe this past summer have plagued him all season, though he's still managed to tough it out for all 27 games with 18 starts, including starting all 16 Big Ten contests.

"Toney's had a frustrating career, I'm sure, with all the injuries that he's had," Sadler said. "He's had to stay the course, and it's not been easy for him. But again, he's nine hours away from getting his degree, and should get that taken care of in May."

McCray said he obviously wished he could have stayed healthy over the past five seasons, but was grateful for the opportunity he was given at Nebraska.

"I wish I could have stayed healthy and scored 50 points every game, to be honest," McCray said. "But at the end of the day, you're just thankful for getting the opportunity to play, and hopefully it continues. You just hope for the best. I've enjoyed my career here. It's been great."

Walker's career at Nebraska only lasted two seasons, but the 6-4 guard from Hutchinson, Kan., wasted no time establishing himself as a fixture in the Huskers' lineup.

After taking on a starting role five games into last season, Walker has played in all 59 on NU's games the past two years. He doesn't lead the team in any one statistic, but his ability to do a little bit of everything has been his biggest asset. That, and occasionally getting the Devaney Center crowd on its feet with a highlight-reel alley-oop flush.

"He's been a player that doesn't say a lot, but has been a guy that in his own quiet way has been a great leader for us," Sadler said. "He's one of the most athletic guys that we have on the team, and again, he's on course to graduate."

Then there's Spencer, who is playing his one and only season with the Huskers after transferring from LSU back in the summer of 2010. A two-year starter for the Tigers, Spencer redshirted last season while he adjusted himself into Nebraska's program.

In his one season in a Nebraska uniform, Spencer has been the heartbeat of the team since the season opener. The 6-2 point guard is averaging a team-high 15.1 points per game and leads the Big Ten in free throw percentage at 88 percent, all while averaging 32.7 minutes a night.

"I would have really liked to have the opportunity to coach him for four years, because I do think that he could be a special player," Sadler said. "He has been a player for two years that you've enjoyed coming to practice and working with."

This season has been especially rough for Spencer, considering he came from an LSU team that had gone to the second round of the NCAA Tournament and won a regular-season Southeastern Conference championship just two years earlier.

However, Nebraska was the school that gave him a second chance to continue his basketball career and college education, and for that he will be forever grateful.

"I'd like to thank Doc and this coaching staff for giving me the second chance to come here and be able to play," Spencer said. "It was blessing, really. Being away from home was kind of hard at first, but Doc and (the team) kind of gave me the warmth of being in a family up here in Nebraska. It was just real big for me. It's been real fun, and I thank them a lot for it."

With just two more regular season games left on the schedule and then at least one more in the Big Ten Tournament, Nebraska's seniors know time is quickly running out on their collegiate careers.

The success which they hoped to attain on the court when they first arrived in Lincoln may not have come, but it's what all four players gained in each of their unique paths that they will always treasure the most.

"At the end of the day, you play for pride, you play for character, you play for the program," Richardson said. "I'm proud of our guys sticking in there. Opportunity is a huge word, and it's not going to be easy by any means, but we can still take ownership and make the best out of the opportunity we have. You always play to the end. If you keep fighting, you never know what can happen."

Said Sadler:

"I think athletics are supposed to teach you life-long lessons. Again, this isn't going to be the worst thing that happens to them or me. I think if we handle it the way we've handled it and learn from it, then it's going to help us somewhere down the road."



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