WASHINGTON, D.C.—National bonding is rare in American sports. We break into groups to root for our favorite pro and college teams, and this factional fandom means our games are zero-sum—when my guys win, somebody else's guys lose. But the NCAA Tournament is different. When an underdog gets a late lead, CBS zooms in and we all hope for a Miracle on Hardwood. On Thursday night, the nation (OK, minus a few Duke fans) prayed for the Belmont Bruins. Or, as they'll forever be known, that 15 seed that almost beat Duke.
In the Verizon Center, the crowd smells Blue Devil blood. With two minutes to go in Thursday's opening-round game, Belmont's Justin Hare gets fouled, and the Bruins have a chance to take the lead. As Hare walks slowly across half-court, flexing his wrist to tune up for the free-throw line, my view from press row is obscured by the Belmont benchwarmers, all standing and flapping their arms up and down to incite the crowd. The team's scrawny student manager looks like a strong candidate for spontaneous human combustion. He pumps his right fist and raises his arms above his head like Rocky, claiming victory with two minutes to go. Hare makes both free throws. Belmont's up 70-69. Fans in Arizona red and West Virginia yellow, finding common cause, writhe together in ecstasy. We are one nation under a "Duck Fuke" sign.
The crowd has been on tenterhooks for a half hour now. During an earlier TV timeout, the Duke cheerleaders were booed mercilessly for doing nothing more than bouncing happily onto the court to shake their pom-poms. A sign that the crowd is in the Bruins' favor: There are three Belmont cheerleaders in the stands. I walk over and ask why they're not out with their seven female colleagues, and they tell me there's a little-known NCAA rule capping the number of spirit squad members who can be on the court at once. As Belmont takes the lead, the auxiliary cheerers bounce up and down like their on-court sisters but don't have room to do the splits.
The clock ticks down. Belmont has the ball up one with 40, 30, 20 seconds to go. With 17 seconds left, Bruins guard Alex Renfroe loses control in the lane and fires a wild shot off the backboard. Duke's Gerald Henderson rebounds and strides the length of the floor; nobody from Belmont steps in his path as he coasts to the basket and drops the ball in the net. Duke by one. Belmont's Hare misses an off-balance leaner, but the Bruins come away with the ball. Timeout. Belmont has the ball under Duke's basket with four ticks on the clock and a chance to win.
In a postgame interview, Belmont coach Rick Byrd says he's envisioned calling this play his whole life. Every kid who grew up playing basketball has imagined taking, and making, this shot. Four seconds to beat Duke, four seconds for the greatest upset in NCAA Tournament history. In these backyard fairy tales, everything happens like it happened for Bryce Drew and Valparaiso, not how it happened for Belmont's Renfroe. Belmont called for Triangle, a play in which Renfroe lobs the ball to the front of the rim, where the team's best leaper, Shane Dansby, would be waiting for a dunk or tap-in. But Dansby got bumped as he rolled to the basket, screwing up the timing and leaving Renfroe's pass to float aimlessly. The ball eventually landed in the hands of Duke's DeMarcus Nelson. Then a foul, a missed free throw, a Belmont half-court heave off the left side of the rim. Ballgame.
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."
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.