NASHVILLE — It was over now, the dreaming and the daring and the dancing. The wildest ride of the unlikeliest team you could imagine had come to an end, and there was nothing for Stan Heath to do but swallow hard and try to ignore the searing pain in his stomach.
After all of the moments, after all of the victories, USF finally lost. The Bulls players moved slowly off the court, a few heads drooping, a few shoulders sagging at the realization there was no more basketball to play. In the end, they could not buy a 3-pointer, and they could not rent a free throw, and they could not protect a lead.
Ohio 62, USF 56.
And good night.
Eventually, there will be time for perspective. Eventually, these Bulls will be known as the team that changed everything for the program. Perception. Standards. Expectations. If USF is good from now on, this will be the team that started it. If USF returns to the land of the lost, this team will be the shining exception.
For now, however, there is only unending pain of a team losing a game it seemed to have in hand for much of the night. It is a high-wire sport, the NCAA Tournament, and falling always hurts. Let's face it: For a legitimate team — and you have consider USF one at this point — losing is supposed to hurt. When a team is bounced out of the tournament, there are supposed to be tears in the locker room.
"This will sting with me until the day I die," Heath said, shaking his head. "You know, once I wake up in the morning, I'll have a lot of pride and I'll feel like, 'Boy, this team gave a lot.' It did."
But not now. Not yet.
"We made history," forward Victor Rudd said. "We'll be proud of it in about a month."
In the meantime, there are moments from this loss that will leave the Bulls with nightmares.
In some ways, it was inevitable that its lack of offensive proficiency would eventually catch up to USF. They are, after all the Shotless Wonders, and whenever they lost, you figured they would shoot themselves out of the tournament. Over the season, there were too many droughts, too many trips down the court where the Bulls simply seemed to have no idea of where the bottom of the basket was.
Against Ohio, it was 3-point shooting that vanished. USF hit only 2 of 15 3-pointers for the night, which doomed it. How are you going to win when the opponent outscores you 27-3 from the perimeter? Answer: You probably aren't.
Then there were the two five-point swings in the second half. In the first, USF was ahead 31-26 when an intentional foul was called against Rudd. Ohio hit two free throws, inbounded and hit a 3-point shot. Tie score.
A few minutes later, with USF up 42-37, Hugh Robertson dunked, but was called for a technical for hanging on the rim. Again, Ohio hit two free throws, inbounded and hit a 3-pointer. Tie score again.
"We pride ourselves in not beating ourselves," Heath said. "When the play happened that way, I think it took a little bit of that fuel away from us. But, you know, it's part of the game."
For a long time, this loss will haunt the USF players. Did their legs tire out? After all, it was their third game in five nights. Did they lose their composure? Why were there so many points left at the free-throw line? And why couldn't they find their shooting rhythm the way they did against Cal and Temple?
As for Heath, the first questions will be internal. Where else would you suspect?
"I'm one of those guys who looks in the mirror and says 'What could I have done better?' " Heath said. "And so I'm kind of kicking myself a little bit. I feel like maybe … I don't know if I prepared them well enough or maybe did a little bit too much the day before because we didn't quite have the zip.
"I don't know. I'll digest this and try to figure out what I could have done better to help our team. I don't feel like I did everything necessary to get my team to play like they're capable of playing."
For most of the season, Heath pushed every right button. He convinced his team to put defense first, and he coaxed it to overachieve, and he led it further than any USF team had a right to expect. If he is disappointed today, if his team is disappointed, if you are disappointed, it is because Heath made success look possible. He made the Sweet 16 look like just another step.
Think of it this way: When is the last USF season that ended in disappointment? By the time most USF seasons have ended, you have been willing to gather the balls and turn out the lights to help it along. Even in those two long-ago NCAA one-and-dones, even in the NIT seasons, no one thought the Bulls would be around for long.
But this time? This team made you believe. For all of its flaws, for all of its grunt-and-grind wins, for all of the times you heard how ugly they were, these were the best moments the Bulls have had.
These were the program-changers. These were the players who stopped the laughing. Perhaps, these are the players who started the winning.
If you are disappointed in them, it is that they did not last long enough.
Soon, they will recognize what they have done. For now, the pain persists.