In victory Saturday, Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski felt empathy for the losers: "The difference between elation and feeling crushed is so small," he said. "I really feel for Kansas. My heart goes out to them."
Tonight, Krzyzewski was on the other end. His Duke basketball team, which won more games than any team in history, came within one jump shot, one roll of the ball and one rebound of the national championship.
But the jump shot rolled out, the roll went to Louisville and so, finally, did the rebound. So it was the Cardinals who felt the elation, the Cardinals who cut the nets and the Cardinals who will remember tonight as one of ecstasy.
So, when the clock hit zero and the Reunion Arena scoreboard told him that "Louisville 72, Duke 69" would not and could not be changed, Krzyzewski stood frozen for a split second. At the other end of the court, his star freshman, Danny Ferry, was reaching to shake hands with Jeff Hall, and Hall was throwing the ball in his face.
"I thought he was going after me," Hall said.
Krzyzewski came out of his split-second daze and went to congratulate Denny Crum, who had just won his second national championship. Crum was clear-eyed, smiling but not joyous. Krzyzewski was misty-eyed, but steady.
But then Krzyzewski turned and saw his players weeping. This is what sets college basketball apart. Almost always, the end is sudden. Victory and defeat come in a fleeting moment. The Super Bowl is often over by halftime, the World Series by the fifth game or at least the seventh inning of the seventh game. Of the great American sports events, this is the one that breaks the most hearts.
Krzyzewski never had been through this before, but this was not the time for tears. Later perhaps, alone with his family. But not now, not with TV cameras whirring, shutters clicking and pencils scratching.
He went first to Johnny Dawkins, the wondrous guard who saw every defense ever concocted and tonight scored 24 points. He hugged Dawkins, whose decision four springs ago to attend Duke was the beginning of the process that led to this night.
Dawkins would be asked later why he didn't get the ball more down the stretch.
"They tried different defenses," he said. "When they do that, it opens things up for the other guys. It has all year. We had the shots, but they didn't fall. We have to live with that."
Defense -- even superb defense -- can save you only so many times. Tonight, the numbers that wrote Duke's defeat were these: David Henderson, five for 15; Mark Alarie, four for 11. All season, they have been the players who have made the shots when defenses keyed on Dawkins. Tonight, the shots seldom fell.
"We got good shots," Krzyzewski said to assistant coach Pete Gaudet as Louisville accepted its awards. "I just don't see how we could have gotten better shots."
But that wasn't what Krzyzewski said to his players as they sat stunned on their bench. Clear-eyed now, he congratulated them, told them to keep their heads up. Crum didn't have to offer congratulations; the winners know they should be proud. The losers need to be reminded.
"They're a great basketball team," Crum said graciously. "Nothing was easy tonight. There were a couple of moments there where I didn't know, I just didn't know."
Those are the moments that will haunt Duke. There was a second-chance jumper by Hall with Duke leading, 54-48. A rebound there, and the lead could have gone to eight. There was an Alarie miss that could have made it 65-60 with 4:20 to go.
And there was Hall's air ball.
"That's the one I'll remember," said Tommy Amaker, the baby-faced guard from W.T. Woodson High School, who tried gallantly to give Dawkins the help he so desperately needed. "We couldn't have played better defense, and they end up with a layup."
It came with 40 seconds left. With Duke down, 66-65, Henderson had missed yet another jumper and Dawkins had rebounded. Open on the base line, he missed a shot he will see in his dreams. But the game wasn't over even when Louisville got the ball. With 11 seconds on the shot clock, Crum called time.
"If I had drawn the play in the huddle, I couldn't have asked for anything better," Krzyzewski said. "It was quirky."
With Dawkins all over him, Hall sent up a shot that was woefully short. But it was so short that the boxed-out Pervis Ellison ended up in perfect position to catch it. Easily, gracefully, he laid it in.
That was truly the end, even though Duke people will contend that Ferry was hammered when his layup cut the lead to 70-69 with three seconds left. "Hank Nichols [the referee] didn't have the nerve to call it," said assistant coach Bob Bender. "He got hammered."
All the missed shots, all the strategy, everything came down to Ellison's being in position because Hall missed by so much.
Joy. Sorrow. A moment to remember forever, a moment to try -- never with any success -- to somehow forget.
"Breaks of the game," said senior Jay Bilas, who will never play it at this level again. "All year, we made the plays we had to have. Tonight, we'll go away feeling like we did it again. Only we didn't, because they won."
"All we can do," Amaker said a few feet away, eyes on the floor, "is hug each other and go have a good cry."