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Nobody wanted this Duke basketball season to end

INDIANAPOLIS—I wanted there to be silence. I wanted it for the players who sat scattered around the locker room, downcast and for the most part still dressed. I wanted it for the moment, barely 10 minutes after the final buzzer had sounded on Louisville’s 85-63 victory against Duke in the Midwest regional final, when there hadn’t been time for the result to really set in—just the palpable sense that something valuable had just been lost. And I wanted it for the obvious absentees—Seth Curry, Ryan Kelly and Mason Plumlee—whose voices had, on 35 nights before this one, spoken most confidently for the team they led.

But slowly the room filled with sound. Cameras clicked, documenting the scene of Rasheed Sulaimon hunched over in a chair, head in his hands, with Quinn Cook leaning over to whisper in his ear. Alex Murphy sat, without focus in his eyes even as the room began to bustle with reporters and cameramen, jersey still on and shoes still tied tight.

Perhaps it was appropriate in that moment that the team’s three seniors were absent, having been hauled red-eyed and quiet to a separate postgame press conference.

The game itself had been a whirlwind, moving at seemingly furious pace from an early Duke lead through a horrifying injury to Louisville sophomore Kevin Ware to a blitzkrieg Cardinal run in the second half that turned a 42-42 tie into a rout.

“It was kind of like it was tied at one point,” Sulaimon said, “and the next time I looked up at the scoreboard, we were down by 18.”

As his freshman season came to an end, Sulaimon did an admirable job remaining poised with a microphone and shoulder camera pointed in his face. He gave thoughtful answers and managed to keep his voice mostly steady, keeping a steadfast dam on an obvious reservoir of tears. Only when the topic of the seniors came up did he begin to falter.

“It’s really hard,” he said, pausing to gather himself. “I’ve only been with these guys for a year, but they—they made a big impact on my life. They’ve done so much for me, for us as a team and for this program. With the time investment we all put, and how close our team was this year, it was just a shame that we didn’t walk out as champions.”

But the resolute Sulaimon, with a businesslike sense of composure that has defined this year’s team—one that battled through one of the nation’s toughest schedules and most disruptive sets of injuries—refused to end his comment on a sour note.

“We have nothing to be ashamed of,” he finished, crediting Louisville and acknowledging his own team’s 30-win season.

It’s not hard to agree with the freshman’s assessment after attending the regional weekend in Indianapolis. As much of a juggernaut as Louisville has been between the lines—with the nation’s most efficient defense and most dangerous transition attack—the Cardinals were a match for Duke not just on the basketball court, but in the locker room as well.

It doesn’t take much interaction with Louisville to understand how close they too have become since losing to Kentucky in last year’s Final Four and returning the bulk of their key personnel. While the Blue Devils are—like their coach—a study in quiet, stoic professionalism, Louisville is a much more effusive bunch, both in energy and emotion.

With junior star Russ Smith sitting three chairs down shaking his head, head coach Rick Pitino joked publicly before the game about having “thought about shipping [Smith] to a different planet” during his freshman year. Peyton Siva—the team’s fiery floor general and lone scholarship senior—admitted wanting to overrule Pitino’s strategy adjustments during halftime against Duke. In many locker rooms, these sorts of gestures would be insubordination, but for the Cardinals, it’s clear that they’re expressions of mutual respect.

“He’s a master at what he does,” Siva said of his coach.

In one of the defining moments of Louisville’s season, the unbridled outbursts of sorrow from Smith and forward Chane Behanan when Ware went down became a source of strength rather than one of despondency.

As the anxious horde of reporters began to thin out, Marshall Plumlee was taking anger out on his shoelaces. Josh Hairston took solace in incoming text messages. Transfer Rodney Hood, who practiced with the team all season but is prevented by NCAA rules from even traveling on the team plane, had huddled his entire 6-foot-8 frame inside one of the lockers. Murphy had barely moved except to remove his jersey. His shoes were still tied.

In another room, Krzyzewski was putting an exclamation point on his strong feelings for the 2012-13 Duke team with a pointedly candid discussion of a coach’s typical feelings at the end of each season, last year’s in particular.

“I didn’t like our season last year,” he said, giving voice to a contrast that many had sensed, “not just the way it ended. I just didn’t like it, even though we were 27-7. I loved this season. I love my three seniors.”

This season, he made it clear that there was something deeper to be mourned as the season passed into history.

“At the end of the year,” he said, “there can be a little bit of you that wants it to be over, and you fight it. And some years—every once in a while, not too often—you just want the damn thing to be over. And there’s not one part of me that wants this season to be over.”


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