It was an unbelievable shot, one that zapped all life from a rowdy student section. Faces soured and optimism evaporated with one pull-up three-pointer from Kentucky's Aaron Harrison. But there was still a chance, I openly noted to anyone who cared to listen. Six seconds to do something.
First, a Wisconsin timeout. Then another from Kentucky. All this additional time only seared the immense build-up of this final play into the 79,444 people packed into AT&T Stadium and the millions more watching on television. It was during that delay I started to imagine the scene if the game-winner dropped as the clock expired. My body already aching from chest-bumps and rounds of double-handed high-fives after every basket, this space would surely become filled with flying bodies and hugs with strangers.
It would be a "David Gilreath returning the opening kickoff for a touchdown against No. 1 Ohio State" level of excitement. It would be an all-time great moment in Wisconsin sports history, and I would be there to witness it.
What A Run
What A Run
Here came Traevon Jackson, one dribble, two dribbles, a crossover to create some space, two more dribbles and a solid step-back look a few feet inside the three-point arc. Seated behind and several feet below the basket, we couldn't see how the shot looked in midair. We simply saw the ball tap off the glass and fall just a bit too soft, dancing off the rim and dropping as the Kentucky players stormed onto the floor.
I dropped my head and shouted an expletive or two, but that was the extent of my mourning. An outstanding game, the kind I'll be bragging about attending two decades from now. But this is where things turned strange for me. I felt an unfamiliar disconnect from the students around me, who had their heads buried in arms and hardly a word muttered. Shock. Disbelief. Heartbreak. All those emotions poured out among this small collective 1,000 miles away from Madison.
I felt pain, but not so deep as that expressed by everyone around me. I felt like the nearby TBS cameraman panning the sunken faces and mouths agape, an outsider watching it all transpire. It wasn't that I didn't understand the emotion, only that I couldn't quite join in their agony.
It left me in a state of troubled confusion. Why wasn't I taking this harder? Was it because I hadn't followed this team like the ones from 2009-13, when I was still student? Because I had never stepped foot in this locker room, despite knowing so many of these faces from covering the team last season? Because I had endured a trip to Kansas City a year ago, only to watch the Badgers crumble to a streaky Ole Miss team in their first game of the tournament?
All these thoughts plowed through my mind as I stood among the sea of red. It was almost lonely, wondering if I was the only one not crushed by devastation. I tried to comfort my friends and got my things in order to leave the scene, only to realize they were still slumped in chairs and staring blankly toward the court.
It's not as if I'm usually immune to such feelings. Previous losses with others teams had hit me this hard, most notably the 2011 Rose Bowl loss to TCU. I still remember a long car ride home from the bar as frustration and what-ifs filled every last bone in my body. The 2012 loss to Oregon was tough but slightly less painful, as that time I had a few days in L.A. and the San Gabriel Mountains to heal any lasting wounds.
I also realize the flukiness of the NCAA tournament. It's easy to talk about how promising the outlook is for next year, how the Badgers lose no significant contributors aside from Ben Brust and have jumped into the top five of every poll I've seen since Monday night's championship game ended. But remember that Wichita State didn't lose a single game this season, yet still exited in the second round. Remember the razor-thin margin of victory in the overtime win over Arizona, and how many things must fall in place to win four games and make it to the Final Four.
Maybe these crushing defeats -- the ones that have seemed to shadow this program over the last several years -- will never feel the same. Maybe I've developed greater perspective with time. Maybe I grow less attached for every year I spend as a sportswriter, unable to completely shed the emotional governor with which it's left me.
Here I was milling about in a 2009-10 Grateful Red shirt, the faded colors and crumbled lettering reflective of my age, trying to figure out why my stomach was not wrought into a ball. I should be fighting back tears and looking lost in the moment.
And that came with another realization: maybe it will just never be the same.