Behind the Belmont bench for (almost) the greatest upset in the history of March Madness.

The stadium scene.
March 21 2008 11:22 AM

Dispatch From the NCAA Tournament

Behind the Belmont bench for (almost) the greatest upset in the history of March Madness.

(Continued from Page 1)

After the game, Renfroe takes the blame, casting himself as Chris Webber in reverse. "It was supposed to be a lob, but it was a bad read by me and a bad pass. I should have called a timeout," he says. "I wasn't thinking."

It wasn't Renfroe's fault. First, he was Belmont's best player all night, scoring a team-high 15 points and constantly cutting up Duke's lead-footed perimeter defenders with drives to the basket. Second, Triangle probably wasn't the right play; Belmont hadn't run any lobs all game long but did have five players on the floor capable of hitting a spot-up jumper. On the podium at the postgame press conference, Byrd absolves Renfroe of any fault. ("Thanks, Coach," Renfroe says. The coach's jokey rejoinder: "We'll talk about your defense later.") It was a dumb play call, Byrd says, and besides, Belmont had a bunch of other missed opportunities. Justin Hare, for one, missed a shot that would've put the Bruins up by three with just over a minute to go. "If we'd scored earlier, if I had run a better out-of-bounds play, if Justin's shot had gone in," Byrd lamented, "we probably wouldn't have played any better, but we'd be still celebrating out there and the world would be talking about us."

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After the NCAA's official interview session, I walk with Byrd in the hallway to the locker room to get in a few more questions. The longtime Belmont coach, a folksy 54-year-old in a maroon sweater-vest, confesses that he heard the roar of the crowd but says he never got nervous. "There are a lot of games I don't have any fun coaching," he says. He talks about the pressures that Duke must face, how they're expected to win every game, before making his way back to his own experience: "It was the most fun game I ever coached in."

As his wife and daughter stand and wait, and a woman walks past to tell the coach the team bus is about to pull away, Byrd keeps talking. When Justin Hare shot the ball in the lane with a minute to go, Byrd says, he's not sure the Duke defender was in "legal position"—not that he's saying there should've been a foul called. He continues, saying he told Mike Krzyzewski how he's trying to turn Belmont into "a mini-version of Duke."

I get the feeling that I'm hearing the first run-through of a story that Rick Byrd will be telling for the rest of his life. Belmont's one-point loss is just 10 minutes old, and it already sounds like he's on his front porch, 20 years later, talking about the one that got away. As the coach spins his yarn, guard Andy Wicke, who made a late 3-pointer to get the Bruins within one, walks past in his warm-ups and tells his coach his plans for the evening: "Yes, sir, I'm going to go with my parents." Then comes Alex Renfroe, walking with his head down and a plastic-covered dinner plate in his hand. He gets a consoling hug from the coach's wife and continues down the hall. He's in more of a hurry than Byrd is to leave the building, to get on the team bus. In the background, you can hear the roar from the West Virginia-Arizona game. The winner will play Duke, but it coulda, woulda, shoulda been Belmont.

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