SAN ANTONIO - Many fans and media said Nebraska was playing with house money entering the NCAA Tournament, its first appearance in 16 years, and that the 2013-14 season was already a major success for the program.
Maybe that was true, but the sentiment didn't relieve any of the sting from the Huskers' 74-60 loss to Baylor in their first-round game at the AT&T Center on Friday afternoon. As the players sat with their heads down and blank stares on their faces in the locker room after the game, it was clear the team had much bigger goals than simply just being happy to be in the Big Dance. They wanted to win, and they truly believed they would until the final seconds ticked off the clock.
"We did what a lot of people thought we weren't going to do, but for us, we didn't want it to end here," sophomore forward Terran Petteway said. "We had a feeling that we were going to make a deep run in this tournament."
From their opening missed shot of the game, it became more and more obvious that it just wasn't going to be Nebraska's day. It shot just 23.1 percent (6-of-26) from the field and went nine minutes without a field goal in the first half, and it was whistled for total 31 fouls to put Baylor at the line for 48 free throw attempts. In a game that had little to any flow from the beginning, the Huskers could never get over the hump even after cutting a 20-point deficit all the way down to nine with just over two minutes to go.
"It was just like we couldn't get into the flow of the game," sophomore point guard Benny Parker said. "Half of it is on us because we kept fouling, but we've just got to man up and play through that without fouling and just play our game. We can't pay too much mind to what the refs are doing or what anybody else is doing. We've got to worry about us sticking together, which we didn't."
Head coach Tim Miles said he knew going in that handling emotions would be a huge part in his team's success in its first NCAA Tournament appearance, and with the way Nebraska struggled so much offensively to begin the game , he wasn't shocked that the Huskers let their frustrations get the best of them as the pressure continued to build.
"It doesn't surprise me the team reacted emotionally," Miles said. "This is their first time here. It doesn't surprise me that we were a little tight or whatever when you want something so much. I heard one of our players say 'I've waited my whole life for this,' and he wasn't playing well. It really matters to these guys, and they wear their emotions on their sleeve. We still lack maturity and those things."
By ending with two straight losses on the two biggest stages of the year, Nebraska obviously has reason to be disappointed with how it ended a campaign few outside of its locker room could have ever imagined. It's certainly a bitter pill to swallow, but the hope is that this season laid the foundation for what will become a new standard of not only regular NCAA Tournament appearances, but victories once they get there.
"We got here, so we must have had a good season," sophomore forward Walter Pitchford said. "We just didn't complete our goal. We'll go back and take a week off and then get back at it. We have to make sure we get back here next year."
Miles, officials talk ejection
With 11:17 remaining in the game, Nebraska's coaching staff realized the shot clock had stopped while action on the court continued. Miles walked over to the sideline scorer's table to inform them of the error, but when he got no response from the clock operator, he frantically tried to yell to the officials on the court have them stop play and fix the problem.
As luck would have it, a foul had just been called against Nebraska while Miles - who had already picked up a technical foul in the first half for emotionally arguing a foul call - was shouting to get the refs' attention. Without hesitation, head official Karl Hess hit Miles with his second technical, leading to an automatic ejection. The second-year coach then walked off the court to the locker room in disbelief, and assistant Craig Smith assumed head coaching duties for the remainder of the game.
It was the first time in Miles's 19 years as a head coach that he'd been ejected from a game, and he had only been issued one technical foul all season leading up to Friday's game. He said he was given no explanation for why he was given the second technical, but was more disappointed in himself for having to leave his team during the most important game of the season.
"I was embarrassed, personally," Miles said. "You just feel like you've let down your team. And there's this, 'Are you kidding me? Is this real?' It was just a tough moment."
Hess also issued a fairly generic statement after the game about the exchange, but he did recognize that there was a malfunction with the shot clock and that the game officials should have noticed and fix the problem.
"Prior to the second technical foul call, there was a shot clock error that both the shot clock operator and officials did not notice," Hess wrote. "The error should have been noticed and could have been corrected."
Miles said he went the television green room after being ejected to watch the remainder of the game with associate athletic director Marc Boehm, but was quickly told to leave the room by NCAA officials. The TV in Nebraska's locker room was of course broken, so Miles ended up going of all places to Creighton's locker room to watch the game with the Bluejay coaching staff before his locker room TV was eventually fixed.
After the game, Miles apologized to his players for letting them down in such a difficult setting, though every player who spoke to reporters said they were well aware that the situation was just a big misunderstanding.
"It was a tough day," Miles said.
Smith keeps Huskers fighting
With Miles banished to the locker room, his coaching staff had to pick up the slack and fill his shoes for the final 11 minutes of the game.
Chris Harriman was in charge of the scout preparations for the game, so he handled the bulk of the X's and O's, while Kenya Hunter spent most of his time talking with players on the bench between substitutions.
That left Smith as the acting head coach, and his biggest task was far and away keeping the Huskers from completely falling apart given the recent string of events. Smith, who has been Miles's right-hand man for the bulk of his coaching career, did exactly that and then some. Nebraska went on to turn a 20-point deficit into a nine-point game with 2:45 remaining, but it was too little, too late by that point.
"You're really going to find out in a situation like that whose got poise, whose got composure, who's about the right things, who can concentrate on the next play," Smith said. "We made some adjustments. We decided to play small ball, we knew we needed to start picking up full court and making some plays and just change the tempo of the game.
"We got Baylor on their heels and really got down hill and made some plays. We just couldn't make enough plays."
The last time Smith was an acting head coach in a game was the 2007 NAIA national championship when he was at Mayville (N.D.) State. But the Huskers said they had full faith in Smith and the rest of the coaches to get the job done without Miles.
"I mean, we had to treat it like (Miles) was there, you know?" Petteway said. "All the coaches are able to coach us like Coach Miles does. It wasn't that big of a difference."
Petteway coming back in 2014-15?
Ever since DraftExpress.com listed Petteway as a potential first-round pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, Nebraska fans have had in the back of their minds the thought of their first-team All-Big Ten wing and conference scoring leader leaving school early and jumping to the next level.
While Petteway dismissed the idea earlier this season, he didn't exactly put the issue to bed when asked about it again after Friday's game.
"As of right now, no," Petteway said when asked if there was a chance he would leave early for the NBA.
Petteway said he hadn't given the idea much thought lately because he was focused on this season, but he didn't rule out possibly exploring the opportunity further now that the season has wrapped up. It's unlikely he'll have a change of heart on jumping to the pros, but it sounds like Petteway hasn't it shot down entirely.
Around the rim
***There were just under 13,000 fans at AT&T Center for the two games of the first session in San Antonio, and a good portion of that total was clad in Nebraska red. Miles said he was blown away by the amount of support the Huskers had in the stands despite being so far away from home.
"Here's the first thing I want to say about the day: our fans were phenomenal," Miles said. "Nebraska fans, even though I saw people in blue standing up and cheering for us - it was an equal Texas-Nebraska crowd. I can't commend our fans enough. I feel like I've let them down."
***With the loss, Nebraska is now 0-7 all-time in NCAA Tournament games, leaving the Huskers tied with Northwestern as the only major conference programs to have never won a tournament game.
***Senior guard Ray Gallegos scored 15 points off the bench in his final game as a Husker, marking his highest total since scoring 18 at Cincinnati on Dec. 28, 2013.
***Pitchford, who was averaging 11.8 points over the past 13 games, was held scoreless on 0-of-3 shooting from the field.
***Nebraska's 16 points in the first half were the fewest of any team in the first 22 games of this year's NCAA Tournament up to that point.