DALLAS — The game comes back over your first cup of coffee. Why wasn’t Johnny Dawkins shooting the ball in the final minutes? Where did Louisville’s Pervis Ellison come from? How could Duke miss so many?

This is the morning after, and the lobby is buzzing softly. The fans are lugging suitcases. People kiss with airline tickets in their hands.

You push aside your eggs with a fork, and you keep seeing it. Louisville cutting down the net, Louisville high-fiving, the Louisville band swaying to
“My Old Kentucky Home” as red- costumed fans let tears stream down their faces.

The Louisville Cardinals are champions of college basketball; Duke is the runner-up; 72-69 was the score; and that ought to be enough.

But the game keeps coming back.

This was no ordinary contest. Not one that fits neatly into your rearview mirror. Not a shocker like Villanova toppling Georgetown last year, or N.C. State over Houston in the last seconds in 1983. Those were easy. Those were miracles.

This was much more subtle — a game you left as a lawyer might leave a courtroom, wondering which argument won the case.

Second-guessing was served with croissants Tuesday morning. The Dallas coffee shops buzzed with the question of how — with Dawkins and that strip-a-minute defense — Duke managed to lose. And how — with seniors Milt Wagner and Billy Thompson on the bench — the Cardinals managed to win.

How did they manage to win? Adjustable Cards; rigid Devils Well. Lots of ways. And only one way. Time will make clear that the Cardinals captured the college crown mostly because they adjusted to changing conditions and Duke did not.

You pack your suitcase, and it becomes obvious: For most of the game, Dawkins was picking the Cardinals apart. He rendered Wagner useless. He penetrated; he scored. Louisville coach Denny Crum had to make a move, and he did, to a 1-3 defense with Jeff Hall chasing Dawkins like a greyhound chasing a mechanical rabbit.

“Normally we love that,” Dawkins said afterward. “The other guys pick up the shots.” Only this night Duke’s other guys did nothing but miss. David Henderson, who will be remembered as a big reason for Duke’s defeat, misfired several times in the final minutes and wound up five-for-15. Mark Alarie and Jay Bilas spent more time leaping and swatting than they did scoring. Crum’s gamble — “Let someone other than Dawkins beat us” — was paying off.

Largely because Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski played along with it. He could have called for Dawkins to shoot more — because the others were cold. Instead, Duke stuck with its normal, Musketeer approach, team play. Dawkins took only two shots in the final seven minutes (both missed) and the Blue Devils went from 7:19 left to 20 seconds left without a field goal.

You close your suitcase and you say that’s one reason. And then you flash on the face of the other: Ellison. Never Nervous Pervis. Only 18 years old. So cool. So calm. So young. A freshman center? The MVP? Incredible. And lost in the hysteria of his “play of the game” — catching Hall’s air ball and dropping it in for a 68-65 lead — was the fact that a few seconds later, he stoically hit two free throws that put his team up, 70-65, and iced the thing. A freshman center?

Yes. And Duke never adjusted to him. He dominated the inside game all night, had 25 points and 11 rebounds, yet Krzyzewski did nothing to counter him as Crum had countered Dawkins. Louisville owned the second-half boards, 22-10. And soon it owned the championship.

College kids — not stars You get in the cab and you know you could go on and on. Doesn’t Louisville clearly deserve the title, because the Cardinals won it with their two big stars neutralized? But maybe Duke, which shot 40 percent on this night, would swish the Cardinals to death some other evening?

OK. These are thoughts that stay with you from the 1986 Final Four, what you chew like a good stick of gum. These, and something else:

An hour after the game, the players came out past the press area — the Duke squad, dressed in suits, and the Louisville squad, dressed in jeans and jackets. The buses weren’t ready, so the players made a beeline for the refreshment table, as most of us would do in college, and grabbed Cokes and potato chips and cheese sandwiches.

And for a few minutes they just mingled there, talking, laughing, while 50 feet away hundreds of writers were tapping out the story to be read around the world the next morning.

It was a remarkable scene because despite all the hoopla, the TV cameras, the journalists within spitting distance, here were the players, the “stars,” swallowing chips and Coke and laughing and looking very much like, well, like college kids. And isn’t that where the game belongs?

It runs through your mind as the plane taxis down the runway, with a soft tugging that says next year’s Final Four won’t come soon enough.

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