The moral victories of Nebraska's close-but-no-cigar start to Big Ten Conference play have official run their course for head coach Tim Miles.
After digging themselves into a 20-point hole to Purdue in the first half, the Huskers used a miraculous second-half rally to get back within five points late in the game. However, NU didn't have enough left in the tank to ever get over the hump, as it fell to 0-5 in the Big Ten after a 65-56 loss to the Boilermakers on Wednesday night.
During his post-game press conference, Miles said he was obviously proud of the way his team fought back and made it competitive, but the dismal start to the game that allowed Purdue to break things open was something the Huskers simply couldn't afford to do.
"Certainly it was a step back, and it was disappointing," Miles said. "It's about mentality. Every possession's got to matter. Every game opportunity has got to matter. Tonight, I don't think we can show evidence that it did matter until it was a 20-point deficit."
It was another rough start offensively for Nebraska, as it couldn't get into any sort of rhythm and shot just 25.8 percent (8-of-31) from the field in the first half. It wasn't until about five minutes into the game that Purdue was able to get going itself, as it turned a tie game into a 20-11 lead with a 12-3 run.
Had it not been for freshman Shavon Shields and sophomore Jordan Tyrance, the Huskers would have had trouble putting a single shot through the basket in the first half. The pair scored NU's final 13 points over a span of 15 minutes, and the Huskers would end up scoring four points and making just one field goal in the final seven minutes of the half.
Purdue led by as much as 12 with three minutes to go, but a late 3 by Shields cut the deficit to 28-19 going into halftime. Shields paced the Huskers with nine points and four rebounds in the first half, and finished with a career-high 18 points and eight boards.
"Sad to say, we weren't ready to play," Shields said. "We just needed to be better than that in the first half. They were taking us out of everything we were doing. They were scoring, and they were just at the rim all the time."
Of the Boilermakers' 28 points, 22 came inside the paint, as 7-foot freshman center A.J. Hammons gave the Huskers fits all night with 8 of his 14 points coming in the first half.
Luckily for Nebraska, Purdue was just 1-of-7 from beyond the arc through the first 20 minutes, otherwise its lead likely would have been much larger. The Boilermakers came into the game ranked third in the Big Ten in 3-point shooting at 37.7 percent on the season.
"Here's what I can compare and contrast from the first half and second half: it was a will to actually play and compete was evident in the second half at times," Miles said. "I didn't see any of it the first half."
The second half didn't start out much better for Nebraska, as Purdue came firing with a 13-2 run to open the half to get up by a commanding 41-21 lead after an And-1 by Rapheal Davis with 16:45 to go.
Just when it seemed like the Huskers were down for the count, though, they came storming back with a improbable 17-3 run that cut a 20-point deficit down to just six with nine minutes still left in the game.
This time it was Purdue that went cold offensively, as it managed just 10 points in 10 minutes during the comeback, and NU was eventually able to get it to 51-46 on a basket by senior Dylan Talley to get the closest it had been since 12 minutes left in the first half.
"We went small, and just got real aggressive with their screen and roll and the double-downs in the post, and I thought that gave us real life," Miles said. "We hadn't had much life, and I thought that really gave us a little bit of fire."
A few seconds after Talley's lay-up, though, Purdue's D.J. Byrd finally made his presence known. The Boilermakers' 3-point ace kept the Huskers at bay with a pair of clutch treys, and a basket and foul by Terone Johnson pushed the lead back up to 10 at 60-50 with 3:21 remaining.
The Huskers wouldn't get closer than nine points the rest of the way, as the promising comeback fell short in the final minutes. Before the final horn, Miles said he called one last timeout to ask his team why it came out so flat.
"I said, 'Look around. What do you see? Empty seats, people heading to the exits. We're supposed to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. I'm not interested in continuing this,'" Miles said. "It comes down to why? Shavon Shields says, 'We weren't ready to play.' I think he was. When a non-scholarship guy, Jordan Tyrance, and Shavon Shields, a true freshman, get half your points and almost half your rebounds … it's going to be a long night."
Tyrance ended up with the best game of his career in the loss, scoring 10 points with seven rebounds, both of which were career highs. Senior Ray Gallegos and Talley, NU's two leading scorers coming in, ended up nine and six points, respectively, on a combined 6-of-22 shooting.
Purdue's Terone Johnson led the Boilermakers with 18 points, while Byrd finished with 12 points on four 3-pointers.
Nebraska will continue its quest for its first Big Ten victory on Saturday when it heads out to take on Penn State, with tip-off set for 12 p.m. CT.
"It's not just about winning and losing, it's about the way you compete, and we didn't compete at all," Miles said. "Purdue got anything they wanted. Whatever they wanted to run, they were going to get a good shot. We just didn't show a mental toughness or a mental readiness to come out and compete. So I don't care if they're mentally tired. I don't care if they're down in the dumps or disappointed. Get over yourself. Let's find a way to go out and compete and get better."
Around the rim
***Miles was asked whether he's seen any signs of fatigue from his limited rotation after 18 games.
"I don't care if they're tired," he said. "I honest to God don't care. They were supposed to have tomorrow off, and we're going to go so hard tomorrow, it's going to be amazing. They're young. They'll bounce back. We've got these cold tubs and hot tubs, they can soak in those. We're not going down that path."
***Miles was then asked whether there was any indication of mental fatigue from his players after five straight losses.
"We're definitely not going down that path, because we're so mentally weak right now, if we don't really tax them mentally, we're going to have some major issues," Miles said. "I haven't asked, and I'm not gonna. I just refuse to believe that we couldn't come out here and win this game tonight. So whatever we were thinking, we've got to change the way we think."
***On a positive note, Miles said he was very pleased with the way Tyrance played coming off the bench. He said Tyrance's performance the past two games would definitely lead to more playing time down the road.
"Jordan really sparked us," Miles said. "He did a good job flying around. He played with no fear. Played just to help the team, and I thought he did a really nice job. I thought he did a pretty good job at Michigan State, too. So he's going to earn more minutes."
***Miles said he couldn't remember losing a game at home despite committing just two turnovers in his career like the Huskers did Wednesday night, which tied the school record (vs. Baylor, Feb. 10, 2010; vs. Maryland Eastern Shore, Jan. 3, 2009; vs. Iowa State, Feb. 16, 2002).