The NCAA championship game was scarcely 15 seconds old Monday night when Duke fans sensed an ugly omen: Louisville already had figured out how to win.

The strategy was fairly simple, although it took patience rarely seen in a game of this magnitude. What it was that assured the 72-69 victory was beating the Devils at their own game.

Very often, guards are the heroes in NCAA championship games. Because they control the ball so much, players such as Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Darrell Griffith and others have been dominant.

That almost happened once more, as Duke's Johnny Dawkins and Tommy Amaker played stunningly at times. In the end, however, tall beat small. The guys who started out closer to the basket dumped the ball through it more often.

The sight that will thrill Louisville and haunt Duke is this: Billy Thompson lobbing the ball to Herbert Crook, who in turn loops it to Pervis Ellison for a layin.

The configuration changed a bit in the Cardinals' second-half comeback, but the results were pretty much the same. Somebody taller than a Devil played like the devil inside. Mostly, that special giant was freshman Ellison, who was voted the Final Four's most outstanding player.

How Louisville won was not through original thinking, but in executing what lots of teams have tried against Duke but couldn't pull off.

Most larger teams try to beat the overplaying Duke defense with high passes. Except that Amaker and Dawkins usually make those lobs very difficult. Also, the Blue Devils' front-court players hustle to create jams if the pass does happen to get completed.

The Cardinals, those smart birds, countered by spreading the court. Moving most everyone reasonably far from the basket opened back-door cuts and stymied double teaming.

Let's start at the opening tip and see how it all evolved. Crook maneuvered his man toward the left sideline, reversed and dashed for the basket. Nobody arrived even after Milt Wagner's pass and Louisville took an uncontested lead.

Next time down court, same thing: Wagner passed to the very open Ellison. All Duke's Jay Bilas could do was hack Ellison and hope he would miss the foul shots. He didn't.

Duke did not win an NCAA-record 37 games by not being able to recover from early trouble. Soon Dawkins and Amaker were resembling a classic guard combination.

Somebody bright will earn more than pocket money by making a highlight film of Amaker on defense and selling it to befuddled coaches eager to win. Legal larceny is his game.

By halftime, the baby-faced pickpocket had five steals; he was the major reason Louisville had problems getting the ball into position for its set plays.

That was at one end of the court. At the other end, Dawkins was scoring on jumpers and moves that excited only those millions not privy to him on Washington-area playgrounds.

From about midway through the first half to about midway through the second half, it appeared that a couple of Big Ds were going to prevail here in Big D.

Defense and Dawkins were ruffling the Cardinals. Wagner once dribbled the ball off his foot and Dawkins grabbed it, fled half the length of the floor and made a three-point play.

Still, even when Duke was ahead by eight points late in the first half, Louisville Coach Denny Crum seemed no more concerned than during a scrimmage in an empty gym.

His program was folded, but not mutilated; the flower on his lapel stayed tidy. He had prepared his team for tense times; it rallied from early deficits for the second time in two games this glorious weekend.

When Wagner continued to play terribly early in the second half, Crum benched him and talked to him as Dawkins gave Duke a 46-42 lead. Later, fifth-year senior Wagner sank the foul shots that assured victory.

To get to that Wagnerian ending, Louisville took the high road. Much of the final minutes, Duke was left struggling at the foot of Mount Ellison.

Also, the Cardinals played some terrific defense themselves. Dawkins failed to make a field goal the final 15 minutes.

The big moments in the final 38 seconds belonged to the fellow called "Never Nervous Pervis." The first involved one of those late-game air balls that aren't pointless shots after all.

North Carolina State won the title back in 1983 on an air ball-turned-basket. The Cardinals gained some margin for error that way with 38 seconds left. Jeff Hall hadn't planned on being a foot short when he let fly from inside the key.

The shot was so awful it was wonderful for Louisville, for Ellison was in position to gather it in and deposit it in the proper place. Louisville, 68-65.

Eleven seconds later, Duke's Henderson missed another drive; Ellison and Duke's Mark Alarie struggled for the rebound. When the bodies cleared, Alarie had fouled out and Ellison was en route to the foul line.

He swished 'em both.

Crum was as unmussed at the end of the game as he had been throughout. His calm during these 40 minutes was as important as it had been the earlier 38 games.

"We lost games like this [a few months ago]," Cardinals assistant coach Jerry Jones said. "We couldn't execute late in the game. This time we did it right."

On his face was an enormous smile.

In his hand, was a trophy.