LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Creighton guard Ryan Nembhard sat quietly, tossing his head back and taking a deep breath as he reflected on the decisive foul called with 1.2 seconds left in the NCAA Tournament's South Region final against San Diego State.
Ryan Kalkbrenner and Baylor Scheierman, seated next to Nembhard, had towels over their mouths.
After Sunday's stunning conclusion to the best season in school history, Creighton's players were confounded, dejected and almost speechless.
“It's a tough feeling. You work so hard all year, and it comes down to a play like that,” Nembhard said. “I think we could have done a little bit more to make it a game that didn't have to go down to that, but it's a tough way to lose.”
The Bluejays didn't blame anyone but themselves for the 57-56 loss that sent them back to Omaha, Nebraska, one win and two points short of their first Final Four trip, while setting off a wild celebration for San Diego State, which is bound for Houston next weekend. The Aztecs will face East Region champion Florida Atlantic, another first-time Final Four team.
Creighton coach Greg McDermott credited his longtime friend and colleague, Brian Dutcher, for devising a defensive scheme that allowed the Aztecs to impose their will on one of the country's top offensive teams.
Creighton (24-13) entered the game averaging 77.0 points and 8.8 3-pointers, a finely tuned scoring machine that took it through the first three rounds of March Madness. San Diego State limited the Bluejays to their second-lowest point total of the season and two 3s on 17 attempts.
The Bluejays never led by more than eight, relinquished their advantage with 6:45 to go and never led again.
They were plagued by errant shots, unfortunate bounces, and questionable decisions such as McDermott's instruction to give a sixth team foul with 6.7 seconds left. That turned off the shot clock and allowed the Aztecs to take the final shot.
Then came the sequence that had everyone talking, with Nembhard's left hand wrapped around Darrion Trammell's hip.
“They came off a little screen, he got downhill and tried to make a floater,” said Nembhard, who hurt his right wrist earlier in the second half. “I tried to contest it. They called a foul.”
Even Trammell, who was named the region's most outstanding player, acknowledged the contact from Nebhard didn't affect his shot, which bounced off the back of the rim.
"I wouldn't say so," Trammell said. "I feel I still had a good look, the refs made their call. They called it and I got an opportunity ... to win the game for my team.”
After missing the first free throw, Trammell made the second to seal the Bluejays' fate.
McDermott did not criticize the call, the desperation floor-length pass from Scheierman to Arthur Kaluma that was deflected out of bounds, or the officials' ensuing conclusion that time had expired.
"Officiating is part of the game and we're not going to go there,” McDermott said. “We lost a game because we didn't do enough, and San Diego State did.”
That was little consolation to the Bluejays, who reached their first Elite Eight since being part of the eight-team NCAA Tournament in 1941.
Afterward, Scheierman walked to the locker room with a jersey over his face. Kalkbrenner rested his head against a concrete wall after leaving the court. And Nembhard had to live with the consequences of a call that Bluejays fans won't soon forget.
“We don't blame officials, when we lose or we win we don't make excuses,” Nembhard said. “It may have been a bad call, it may have been the right call. It is what it is.”
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