ATLANTA – They sat in a semicircle of despondence, ties loosened, heads down, in a tiny coaches locker room in the bowels of the Georgia Dome filled with what happeneds and what-ifs.
"Tie game," Xavier's associate coach Sean Miller said softly. "Three minutes left."
Then he shook his head.
Oh, didn't Xavier almost have it all? Didn't the Musketeers almost have the upset damn near the entire nation wanted? The scrappy little Jesuit school from Victory Parkway in Cincy, unranked and disrespected, almost vanquished Duke from the tournament the Blue Devils seem to think is their own.
But this is what it is to play Duke. This is the recurring theme.
Xavier's game plan worked. The kids believed. The obstacles were cleared. Tie game, ball game, anyone's game and then: boom. A defensive lapse here, a ridiculous tip-in there, a referee's whistle again and it's all over but the head shaking.
"The plays didn't go our way," Xavier guard Lionel Chalmers said. "It went their way. And it went 66-63."
Duke goes to San Antonio. Duke goes to the Final Four for the 14th time. Duke goes to 10-1 under Mike Krzyzewski in regional finals.
This is what it is to play Duke. To beat the Blue Devils you have to kill them, drive a stake through their hearts so deep that no momentum swing, no wonderful comeback, no karma or striped shirt can save them. Because if you don't you wind up in a silent locker room staring at your shoes.
"I knew we were going to struggle getting a 10, 15 point lead," Xavier coach Thad Matta with a weak smile. "We were prepared to take it down to the wire. There is no question they are well coached. They have great basketball intellect. They were able to make plays down the stretch.
"They made them and we couldn't get over the hump to make them."
With that he paused.
"That's kind of the way it goes."
Sunday it was the Blue Devils' precious freshman Luol Deng who was the difference. First the physically gifted 6-foot-9 forward broke down in tears during halftime and made an impassioned plea to his teammates to step it up.
"Anytime I've seen kids do that, they usually wind up doing something exceptional," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
So this happens often? Kids cry and then take over games?
This is what is to play Duke.
Indeed, Deng ended up doing something exceptional, first draining a clutch three-pointer to tie it and then making a high-flying tip in with 1:52 left to push the Duke lead to five points – all while playing with four fouls. By the time Deng finished with 19 points and seven rebounds he was the Atlanta Regional's most valuable player.
"His leadership qualities came out," Krzyzewski said. "And he made those plays."
But that's Duke, isn't it? The faces change but there is always a Deng down the stretch. There is always a loose ball that seems to find its way into Blue Devil hands. There is always a referee's whistle that haunts teams during the offseason.
Matta was asked over and over about how Xavier forward Anthony Myles, who was pounding Duke on the blocks, could pick up four fouls in a six-minute stretch early in the second half, including two fouls in just six seconds. For conspiracy theorists, four of the calls were by Mike Kitts, who works many ACC games.
Matta was too classy to complain.
Just as no one should.
If Krzyzewski intimidates officials and gets favorable calls for his team – a coincidence that keeps happening – then he should be celebrated for it. Isn't that just good bench coaching?
If the incredible amount of, we'll generously call it confidence that permeates throughout the program creates players who believe, truly believe, that they should make game-changing clutch plays, then isn't that an advantage any team would take?
And if that confidence is what turns the rest of the nation against the Blue Devils, who seem to so many to be so smug, and Krzyzewski can then complain about an anti-Duke bias (as he has done all tournament) and somehow make his group of blue bloods feel like us-against-the-world underdogs, isn't that just brilliant leadership?
Isn't that what it is to play Duke?
A freshman who was crying at halftime busts you down the stretch.
"We were right where we wanted to be," Matta said.
He stared off for a second. What happened? What if?
"Credit Duke," he said. "Credit Duke."