Unless my mind has purged a more piercing sight, the worst agony-of-defeat moment I ever witnessed in person was U.S. wrestler Sammie Henson running through the stands screaming and collapsing in the fetal position in a hallway after losing the gold medal match in the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
Oregon’s distraught Jordan Bell became the latest runner-up to that spectacle Saturday night.
A few feet away, he bent over convulsed in grief at the edge of the court at University of Phoenix Stadium after the Ducks’ 77-76 loss to North Carolina in the national semifinal.
An Oregon team that never would have reached its first Final Four since 1939 without him, a team that wouldn’t have been in this game without his 16 rebounds, 13 points and four blocked shots, had lost its last chances at a comeback after he failed to pluck two rebounds of missed free throws he was in position to grab in the final 5.8 seconds.
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“I lost this game for us,” the inconsolable Bell would say in the locker room later, adding, “This is going to hurt forever.”
One player doesn’t win or lose a team game, of course, and some day Bell will know that.
But it’s a fine line between being the perceived goat and one of the GOATs (greatest of all time), and it’s a fickle distance between moments that will live in perpetuity and ones that will haunt.
Chances are the title game between North Carolina and Gonzaga on Monday night will reiterate just that.
It’s the nature of sports, because you can’t have a winner without a loser.
But it’s often as cruel as it is captivating, and it’s easy to warp the difference between one and the other.
Consider last year’s national title game, and Marcus Paige’s infinitely clutch double-clutch three-pointer for North Carolina that tied Villanova 74-74 with 4.7 seconds left.
It was the sort of shot that should live in the pantheon of college basketball lore and UNC history, right there with Michael Jordan’s winning jumper in the 1982 title game …
Except it was almost instantly eclipsed by Kris Jenkins’ three-pointer at the buzzer for Villanova.
So Jenkins’ shot will be part of “One Shining Moment” — even as Jenkins on Monday will cheer on the Tar Heels and Nate Britt, his brother via the legal guardianship of Britt’s parents.
Meanwhile, the Tar Heels only have the chance to avenge that defeat by the slimmest of margins after a scenario that could have played out entirely differently in the final seconds Saturday.
North Carolina’s Kennedy Meeks was playful about this on Sunday, probably out of relief as much as anything else.
But he knew how close this was to an alternate reality on Saturday night.
As he walked off the court after a stellar 25-point, 14-rebound performance, all Meeks could talk or think about was the two free throws he’d missed with 5.8 seconds left that might well have cost the Tar Heels the game — and left him as the one tormented.
But teammate Theo Pinson saved him from that potential fate by tapping the second miss out to Joel Berry after Bell had found himself focusing less on the rebound than making an outlet pass when he grabbed it.
Then Berry remarkably missed two free throws himself, and Meeks atoned by outhustling and outmuscling Bell to the ball to leave him the belle of the ball … instead of plunging into despair.
“I’ve coached for 44 dadgum years; I’ve never seen anything like that,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “We missed four free throws in the last 6 seconds.
“But,” he added, “we’re ecstatic.”
Asked Sunday if he felt a sense of compassion for Bell in his own good fortune, Meeks smiled and put it this way:
“No, that was meant to happen, boss.”
Which is good an explanation as any about the way this works.
That’s why after the game, Williams grabbed Bell and told him, “Don’t let this one game make you forget what you did to get here.”
Because it struck close to home for Williams for any number of reasons, most recently the end of the title game last season.
“Last year, Isaiah Hicks tried to take the blame for Kris Jenkins’ shot: It wasn’t Isaiah’s man; somebody else didn’t pick up what they were supposed to do,” Williams said Sunday.
So Williams called for a news conference in the days afterward solely to make that point … and a broader, more important one.
Jenkins wasn’t Hicks’ man on the play, at least not as the defense started out and was designed.
Moreover, Williams said, the shot wasn’t against any single player.
“That shot,” he said then, “was against North Carolina’s team.”
And all the more true that fortune can change in an instant, like it did in that title game … and as it did for Kansas against Oregon after the Jayhawks looked unstoppable the game before against Purdue.
How that will play out Monday is anyone’s guess.
But on Sunday, this was the difference.
Meeks could giggle about needing to make his free throws against Gonzaga, as Bell presumably was starting to find a way to reconcile a wretched moment that even Meeks would tell you was as much happenstance as anything else.
“It just bounced,” Meeks said, “the wrong way” for him.
Because it has to go one way or another.