Are we straight on Pervis Ellison now? He's 18 years old; actually, he'll be 19 Thursday. He was born in New York City, but his family moved to Savannah, Ga., when he was 4. Back home, people call him "Bubba," but around Louisville you hear "Never Nervous Pervis" and "Windex," because he cleans the glass. He chose Louisville over Georgia Tech, he said, "because the state of Georgia is dominated by football, whereas Kentucky is a basketball state." He's 6 feet 9, thin at 200 pounds, still a little soft, and he wears braces, which may account for some of his shyness.
He was the most influential freshman in college basketball this season, and the longer the season lasted, the better he got. During Louisville's regular season, Ellison averaged 12.6 points and 7.7 rebounds per game, but saved his best game for the finals of the Metro Conference tournament, burying Memphis State with 21 points and 13 rebounds. Then in the NCAAs, where freshmen routinely evaporate, his averages climbed to 13.6 points, 9.2 rebounds. And all that came before he signed the check with his astounding 25-point, 11-rebound flourish in the national championship. How good can Ellison be? Well, how high is up?
Meaning no disrespect, though, as eye-catching as Ellison's numbers were, they weren't the ones that will haunt Duke. "I don't go away from this game having bad dreams about Pervis Ellison," Coach Mike Krzyzewski said calmly. No, the numbers that prompt any bad dreams are these: five for 15 by David Henderson; four for 11 by Mark Alarie; 25 for 62 overall. "Pervis Ellison's a great player, no question about it," said Jay Bilas, who should know, seeing as he had the closest view of Ellison's scoring technique. "But we hit some shots and nobody cares." This appraisal was echoed by Krzyzewski, who said: "I think we have the game in control if we just hit our shots. Then it doesn't matter what the other guys do."
No sour grapes. No shoulda, coulda, woulda; what should have happened, did. Louisville won the game by being better when it counts the most, when the water starts to boil. But Duke shot almost 52 percent from the field all season. Even a fatigued team -- and Duke was worn to the nub in the NCAAs, its shooting accuracy dropping like the price of oil -- figures to shoot better than 40.3 percent.
"I can't find fault with my team," Krzyzewski said. "We had good shots. We missed them. Sometimes you just lose. I'm trying to come up with a witty comment, but sometimes you just lose." Duke lost the game as sure as it was beaten, squandering an electrifying defensive performance that produced 24 turnovers. Allow me one coulda: If Duke converts the turnovers early in the game, maybe instead of a 25-18 lead it has a 31-18 lead, and maybe that's too many for Louisville to make up. "You have to punish them when they turn the ball over," Krzyzewski said. "We didn't."
After Johnny Dawkins had scored seven straight points to give Duke a 48-42 lead with 15 minutes 28 seconds to play, Louisville concentrated its defensive effort on dousing Dawkins' flame. So successful was the strategy that Dawkins, who had 22 points in less than 25 minutes, did not make another field goal. "They had men all over Johnny, not letting him breathe," said Tommy Amaker, Duke's defensive prodigy who can steal a contact lens from your eye without making you blink. "Johnny's our main man on offense. We needed him, and we couldn't get the ball to him." Since neither Bilas nor Amaker is a significant offensive force, Duke had to depend -- not unreasonably -- on Alarie and Henderson to carry the weight.
Alarie was a 54.5 percent shooter this season; Henderson, 53.3 percent. They're seniors. They're supposed to respond in exactly this situation. It's hard to say how much a factor fatigue played in their NCAA performances. Surely Alarie, who'd expended so much effort throttling Vernon Butler and Danny Manning in successive games and then had to work as hard against Billy Thompson, appeared pasty, beyond drained against Louisville. But in Duke's last four games, the East regional and the Final Four, Alarie hit just 22 of 61 shots for 36.1 percent, and Henderson was even worse: 11 of 37 for 29.7 percent. From the 7:19 mark, Duke went 6:59 without a basket. Give Louisville's defense all the credit it deserves, but don't make it extraterrestrial. "Our shooting may have caught up with us," Amaker suggested reflectively.
The shot of the game, of course, was made by Ellison. Louisville called time, leading, 66-65, with 48 seconds left in the game, 11 on the shot clock. Harrassed, as usual, by Amaker and Dawkins, the Louisville guards couldn't get the ball down low. With two seconds left on the shot clock and Dawkins on him like a fever, Jeff Hall, who along with Milt Wagner was invisible most of the game, sent up an air ball that wouldn't get within two feet of the rim. And there's Ellison, like he'd done all game long over Bilas or Danny Ferry, reaching up to grab it, then sending it softly home. "We get exactly what we want," Amaker said. "We hound them all over the court, we don't foul, they take a terrible shot, and there's Ellison again, coming out of somewhere. That was a demoralizing point for us."
Ellison chose to soft-peddle his own dominance of the game, saying: "I don't think I took charge out there. Some things just went my way. I was lucky Bilas got in foul trouble, and I was lucky to be where I was when Jeff shot." Ellison smiled and said: "Jeff told me it was a pass." It was the only time Ellison smiled in the locker room. In fact, he made a point of saying that "the fans in Louisville are probably enjoying this more than we are," which strikes me as a sad comment for someone so young and gifted to make.