Bobby Gonzalez knew the question was coming. He also knew he couldn't possibly answer it without breaking down.
"I had told them during the season that I didn't want them going out in a game in the MAAC tournament," he said, pausing to take a deep breath. "I wanted it to be in the NCAA tournament." Another pause. "I told them it was okay, that this was the way to end it."
He stopped. There was a lot more he wanted to say but he knew if he said another word he would break down. "I didn't want to embarrass myself by losing it in there," he said later. "One more word, and I'm gone."
He was calmer now, standing in a hallway outside the Manhattan locker room talking about his two seniors, Jared Johnson and Justin Jackette. He had taken them out together with 33 seconds left in the Jaspers' 76-65 loss Friday to Syracuse. Just as they had come in together four years ago when Gonzalez was a rookie coach, now they were going out together.
"I sold them on a dream four years ago, because that's all it was then," Gonzalez said. "They made the dream come true. . . . I was sad when they hugged me, but the thing I felt more than anything was proud."
The NCAA tournament produces these moments all the time. For all the time that is spent feeling sickened by Georgia and Fresno State and St. Bonaventure; for all the sanctimony of those in charge, moments like the one Gonzalez shared this afternoon with Johnson and Jackette are the reason for the place March occupies in the American sports pantheon. Johnson's last college game was one of his best, a 22-point performance against a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament. Jackette's wasn't nearly as memorable -- he started, played 20 minutes and failed to score.
But that wasn't the point.
"If we hadn't respected them, they'd have beaten us," Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim said. "That's the way college basketball has changed. You watch teams play that are 13, 14 seeds and you think, 'That team can really play.' Manhattan's one of those teams."
In this tournament, the underdogs almost always believe they can win. Every once in a while they do and become part of tournament lore. Of course becoming part of that lore can also be painful. Boeheim literally winced talking about Dylan Page, the 6-foot-10 Wisconsin-Milwaukee junior who missed a layup that would have beaten Notre Dame on Thursday night.
"I hate it when an NCAA tournament game ends like that," he said. "Someone makes a play to win it, okay, but a play like that, you just know that kid will live with that memory forever. I still remember being in San Diego for the Final Four in 1975 when Terry Howard went to the foul line with a chance to win the game for Louisville against UCLA. He was 28 for 28 for the season, and something told me he was going to miss."
Howard did miss, UCLA won the game -- and John Wooden's last national title two days later -- and 28 years later Boeheim was shaking his head thinking about it one more time.
There were no moments like that in the Syracuse-Manhattan game. The Jaspers got within one once in the second half, trailing 39-38 after a three-pointer by Flores. TV took a timeout a few seconds later and Gonzalez sensed a chance.
"That was my favorite moment of the game," he said. "I told the guys in the huddle that if we could get the lead, the crowd would really get into it because we were the underdog and the extra pressure might make Syracuse a little tight." He shook his head. "We never could quite get there, though."
More often than not, the double-digit seeds from the non-power bid conferences don't quite get there. Holy Cross, Utah State, Southern Illinois and Wisconsin-Milwaukee all had chances to pull major upsets Thursday. All fell short. All had seniors who will sit around years from now and talk about what might have been when they had their moment in the spotlight.
Both of Friday afternoon's losing teams certainly had theirs. Pennsylvania's Ugonna Onyekwe saved the best game of his college career for last, scoring 30 points in his team's loss to Oklahoma State.
It wasn't enough. At almost the identical point in the game (34 seconds to go) that Gonzalez had taken his seniors out, Penn Coach Fran Dunphy took Onyekwe out. He sat at the end of the bench, head in hands for a moment, then stood to offer congratulations to the Cowboys when the buzzer sounded.
Just as Boeheim had done for Johnson and Flores a couple of hours earlier, OSU Coach Eddie Sutton made a point of taking Onyekwe aside for a few extra words, an arm around him.
"You always want to respect your opponent, but there are some who stand out," Boeheim said. "You want them to know how much you admire them. Kids like those Manhattan kids make the game good. I know people will laugh at me for saying something like that. But I believe it."
This was a day for believing in good things. It was a day that began with a moment of silence to honor those who have died in Iraq and ended with joy for the winners and sadness for the losers.
But, as Gonzalez pointed out, the emotions the losers felt were more complicated than that.
"I have no idea what the future holds for me," said Gonzalez, who has been mentioned in connection with several coaching vacancies. "But those last few seconds today weren't about me. They were about those two kids. I'm sad because I'll never coach them again. I'm unbelievably proud that I coached them at all."
Manhattan and Penn lost basketball games Friday. Their seasons came to a close. Careers ended. But they will all take the memories with them.
Sometimes, it is okay to lose. And to cry.