TAMPA — It was over, and still, the coach held his ground. The wrong team was celebrating, and the night had turned upside down, and the emotions swirled inside Stan Heath.
He ached, because he had lost a game he felt his team should have won. He was bewildered, because he didn't quite grasp how North Carolina State's winning shot could come with a stopped clock. He was annoyed, because the best by-golly season in USF history had ended in a wild final moment that seemed beyond his team's control.
Most of all, he felt a bright, burning disappointment.
When you think about it, isn't that a better way for a basketball season to end than anyone around here is used to seeing?
The terrific, turnaround season of the USF Bulls ended Tuesday night when they botched back-to-back plays late and lost 58-57 to N.C. State. First, they left an opponent unguarded beneath their basket to allow the Wolfpack to take the lead with eight seconds to go. After that, they had a last-second shot of their own blocked.
Odds are, both plays will haunt their players for some time to come.
Still, losing a game in the final seconds of a postseason tournament is a noble death for a basketball season, isn't it? In recent seasons, the usual ending for the Bulls had felt different, almost merciful, almost kind. Finally, the beatings were going to end.
If nothing else, this Bulls team allowed you to feel disappointment. For a change, this was a season that made you want more. For a change, this was a nice ride that promised a better tomorrow.
That, above all, explains why the sting was so sharp inside Heath.
"It's a real hard way to lose," Heath said. "We had the game in hand. There is no doubt in my mind. At the end of the day, this was a game we should have won. It'll be hard to sleep for a little while."
That's just as well because, let's face it, USF basketball has slept through most of the previous decade. This team was different. You could argue the improvement of USF against any team in the nation.
Consider this: Of the 97 teams playing in the men's postseason tournaments, the NCAA and the NIT, USF is the only team that had fewer than 10 victories a year ago. This year, the Bulls finished with 20.
And the best news? Maybe they're just getting started.
I know, I know. When it comes to success in Tampa Bay, we aren't used to seeing it hang around long.
Remember the Bucs' title? And the seasons after? And the Lightning's title? And the seasons since? And the Rays' World Series appearance? And the year that followed?
As for Heath, he said it's "a no-brainer" the success will continue.
You tell him that, in Tampa Bay, we aren't used to seeing success hang around.
"I am," he said.
Maybe that's the difference here. College basketball, more than any other sport, is a coach's game. In Heath, maybe USF finally has the right fit.
Which means, of course, that it's time to worry. After all, athletic directors at other schools are sure to notice the job Heath has done. Maybe at Oregon. Maybe at Auburn. Maybe at Iowa. Maybe at another school that hasn't gotten around to collecting the office keys from its coach.
Such is the price of success. Other teams want to grab the guy with the blueprints for it.
No, there is no need for alarm. Yet. The gut feeling is that Heath isn't going anywhere. Now. But the administration of USF has to know the other schools are going to come eventually. They have to brace themselves for the rumors and the headlines and the flirtations to come. In other words, there are two things that will indicate the direction of USF.
One is the recruiting by Heath.
The other is the recruiting of Heath.
Why would Heath consider leaving? Well, start with the empty seats in the Sun Dome on Tuesday night. Was this really the crowd you would have expected for a program that hadn't been in a postseason tournament in eight years?
Also, there is this. As far as the Bulls have come, they're still playing uphill. College basketball is a place where some programs have built-in advantages through tradition or recruiting base or facilities or fan passion. USF has had a nice season, but a coach is going to have to scramble to keep up with the Big East.
On the other hand, Heath likes it here. And he's given USF a chance. The new practice facility will help. Another good year will help. Maybe if someone could score a little bit, that would help, too.
In the meantime, watch Heath work the sidelines. Watch him pull his big men over as they come off the court to teach. Watch him roll his eyes like a disappointed professor at a bad play. Watch him flash that bemused smile at an official, as if to suggest that call was too ridiculous to take seriously.
These days, frankly, Heath looks like a man who belongs.
It would be nice to see him hang around for a while, wouldn't it?