The safest assumption in sports the last few years is that the NCAA championship game will make your knees quiver.

Tonight it was Duke and Louisville that treated the nation to one pulsating play after another. Finally, it was a Louisville freshman -- 6-foot-9 Pervis Ellison -- who kept his composure like a veteran and led the seventh-ranked Cardinals to a 72-69 victory over top-ranked Duke here in Reunion Arena.

Ellison, a babe in braces bound to become one of college basketball's marquee players, took Jeff Hall's air ball and converted it into a layup with 38 seconds left for a 68-65 lead. And two free throws by the 18-year-old Ellison with 27 seconds left enabled the Cardinals to withstand Duke's final bit of fury and win their second NCAA championship in seven seasons.

Ellison, with 25 points and 11 rebounds, became the first freshman to win the Final Four's outstanding player award since Arnie Ferrin of Utah in 1944.

With 12 minutes left in the game, Louisville's two seniors and leading scorers -- Billy Thompson and Milt Wagner -- were on the bench with four fouls each. Duke had opened a six-point lead, and Ellison, who had some early foul trouble himself, was the player who had to come through for the Cardinals.

His three-point play cut Duke's lead in half, one layup kept Louisville within four. And a third layin, with 3:55 left, cut Duke's lead to 63-62.

"He's a freshman, but he's not really a freshman, if you know what I mean," teammate Herbert Crook said.

Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski called Ellison "sensational." And Duke forward Mark Alarie said: "I thought he made some great athletic moves around the basket. That did surprise us."

It shouldn't have. Ellison has been making plays like that all season. And Duke's naivete cost the Atlantic Coast Conference champion Blue Devils a shot at their first national championship.

Duke (37-3) still plotted victory in the closing seconds. Danny Ferry's basket with three seconds left put the Blue Devils within 70-69, but their 21-game winning streak was stopped when Wagner made two free throws with two seconds left for the final, dramatic margin.

The Blue Devils led most of the evening. But Thompson's short jumper with 2:47 remaining put Louisville (32-7) ahead for good, 66-65.

Duke's David Henderson, who never found his regular-season form through six games of the NCAA tournament, missed five shots in Duke's final 11 possessions. And he wasn't the only Duke player to misfire.

"We missed shots we normally hit a good percentage on," Krzyzewski said. "That's what won us so many games this season."

But tonight, the Blue Devils made only 40 percent of their shots from the field.

Henderson missed 10 of 15; Alarie missed seven of 11; Tommy Amaker missed seven of 10. And Johnny Dawkins, smoking the Cardinals at the beginning of each half, hit 10 of 19 for a team-high 24 points.

With the Cardinals up, 66-65, Henderson missed a relatively open jump shot from 15 feet out on the right side. After a Duke timeout with 1:47 to play, Henderson missed again from the right side. The offensive rebound, one of the few the Blue Devils would have, went to Dawkins. But he missed from about 15 feet on the left side.

Crook took down one of his 12 rebounds, and Louisville worked the ball into the front court before calling time with 48 seconds left on the game clock, 11 seconds left on the shot clock.

With so little time left to shoot, Louisville didn't want to run a set play, Coach Denny Crum explained, because Duke's defense was so good it already had forced the Cardinals into 24 turnovers.

So Crum ordered a clear-out play for Hall, or Wagner, whoever got the ball first.

"We tried to pressure each one of their players and force a bad shot," Alarie said. "That's what we did. But we didn't block out."

The Blue Devils didn't block out very well in the second half, which is why Louisville outrebounded them, 22-10, to help overcome Duke's 37-34 halftime lead.

But this offensive rebound was the most important of all. "I looked up and saw it was falling short," Ellison said. "I thought I was the only one who jumped because when I went up nobody was around."

Nobody was. Ellison put down the two-foot shot and gave the Cardinals their biggest lead since the opening two minutes.

Henderson missed another driving shot with 30 seconds left, leading to Ellison's free throws that made Louisville's advantage five points.

In another 27 seconds of playing time, Louisville would win its 17th consecutive game and Crum would have his second national title, having beaten UCLA in 1980. "This one feels better," Crum said. "I felt so relieved the first time, I didn't have time to enjoy it. Believe me, I'm going to enjoy it this time."

Georgetown Coach John Thompson, who has lost two NCAA title games, said that the losers "feel worse than anybody in the world."

And that was apparent as many of the Duke players blinked through clouds in their eyes.

For most of the game Duke was ahead, and played well enough defensively to feel good about its chances.

By halftime, Dawkins had scored 15 points, many of them on spectacular hanging jumpers. Amaker, another of the six players on the team from the Washington, D.C., area, had made five of his seven steals.

The Blue Devils had played nasty, nasty defense. They had taken the Louisville guards -- Wagner and Hall -- almost completely out of the game; Wagner and Hall scored a total of 13 points for the game.

But Crum felt his team could exploit the height matchup in the middle. And Jay Bilas, one inch shorter than Ellison in height but four in playing style, left with four fouls with 5:33 left in the game. Alarie would foul out near the end.

And Louisville, a relentless second-half team, crashed the boards and wore down the Blue Devils. Crum said he knew, down six in the second half, "we had our work cut out for us, but they always seem to come up with whatever is needed."

What the Cardinals came up with was a way to stop Dawkins. Crum used four players to guard Duke's all-America from Mackin High School.

In the last 15 minutes, Dawkins took only two shots, and missed both. "We felt it was a calculated risk," Crum said, "but one worth taking. If somebody was going to beat us, we decided it wouldn't be Dawkins."

When opponents gang up on Dawkins, the other Blue Devils usually clean up. Henderson, Alarie, Amaker -- pick one.

"We took good shots, but we just missed them," said Krzyzewski.

And ultimately, that's what the game was reduced to. Duke's misery was Louisville's joy.