Duke won 37 games this season, more than any college team in history. The Blue Devils were also justifiably ranked No. 1 and needed just one more win to gain everlasting recognition.
But that win eluded Duke as it lost to Louisville, 72-69, in the NCAA title game Monday night at Reunion Arena.
The Duke players won with class and they lost with class, although they were unaccustomed to their role as losers as they finished with a 37-3 record.
There was a recurring theme in the Duke dressing room: What happened to our shooting?
The players said they got the shots they wanted, but they just didn’t fall. Duke shot 51.5% for the regular season but only 40.3% against Louisville.
“It’s disappointing when you have good shooters for years and then things just go sour,” said center Jay Bilas, the muscular center from Rolling Hills High School. “It wasn’t divine intervention. We just missed.
“If we play our best, no one can beat us. We played hard tonight and gave it some effort and we lost to a very good team. But it wasn’t our best game.”
Someone asked Bilas if Duke’s place in history would be tarnished by not winning the big one.
“When you consider that we won 37 games, more than any other team ever, and we had won 21 in row coming into tonight’s along with the fact we have four 1,000-point scorers on our team, I think we’ll be remembered.”
Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski couldn’t find fault with his team to any great extent.
“We played extremely well, but we did not shoot well,” he said. “The shots we had we normally make. I thought our defense was excellent except in one area, blocking out.”
The Blue Devils couldn’t prevent Louisville’s freshman center Pervis Ellison from scoring inside. Ellison, the MVP of the Final Four, finished with 25 points and 11 rebounds and made, perhaps, the turning point play of the game when he followed a missed shot in for a basket that give Louisville a 68-65 lead with 39 seconds remaining.
Louisville had worked the 45-second clock down to 11 seconds before it called time out. When play resumed, guard Jeff Hall missed an outside shot, but Ellison put the ball back in.
“We were trying to pressure each player and force a bad shot,” Duke forward Mark Alarie said. “We did that, but unfortunately we did not block out on the rebound. I thought that Ellison made some great athletic moves around the basket.”
Said Bilas: “He’ll certainly be a force to be reckoned with in the future.”
Duke guard Johnny Dawkins started off as if he was going to take over the game by himself. He got 11 points in the first 4 1/2 minutes and settled for 15 by the break.
He had another offensive flurry early in the second half but didn’t get another basket the last 15 minutes of the game.
“Louisville kept fresh guys on me all the time with a diamond-and-two or a box-and-one defense,” said Dawkins, who finished with 24 points on 10-of-19 shooting. “When they do that, it opens up things for other players. Unfortunately, the shots didn’t fall.”
Tommy Amaker, Duke’s 5-11 point guard and the only junior in the starting lineup, had a championship caliber-type game. He scored 11 points, made 7 assists and had 7 steals.
“I didn’t want to force the ball to Johnny when they were in that box-and-one defense,” Amaker said. “I didn’t want to put him in a position where he would have to make an off-balance shot. We had other open shots.”
But they didn’t go in, especially those of forward Dave Henderson, who missed on 10 of 15 shots. He has been in a tournament slump. He was shooting only 36% coming into the game compared to 52.5% shooting during the regular season.
“There are no excuses,” said Henderson, a senior from Drewry, N.C. “We got the shots we wanted, and I have no idea why mine didn’t go in.”
It was suggested that, perhaps, the Blue Devils were tired after their emotionally draining and physically tough 71-67 victory over Kansas in a semifinal game Saturday.
“I don’t think fatigue had anything to do with it,” Henderson said. “The better team won.”
Amaker couldn’t blame it on fatigue, either. “We came out fresh and we were pressing them with our man-to-man defense,” he said.
The Blue Devils could have blamed foul trouble for their defeat in a game that they led most of the way. Alarie and Henderson fouled out and Bilas was in an out of the lineup with four fouls.
“There were some fouls that I think should have gone the other way,” Bilas said, “such as the blocking foul they called on me with 5 1/2 minutes left. I thought it should have been a charge on Milt Wagner. But when you put that much into a game you always think you’re right.”
Bilas just shrugged. He was disappointed, but he wasn’t griping or alibiing. Just explaining.
But the Blue Devils will always wonder . . . if they had only shot a little better.