Meanwhile Lang found Mashburn. Eventually Laettner found Woods.
"Nice game," Laettner said.
"Nice shot," said Woods.
The previous week, at a Holiday Inn in Worcester, Mass., Pitino had watched on TV as freshman forward James Forrest gave Georgia Tech an NCAA second-round victory over Southern Cal in the final second. Forrest's shot was a desperately flung three-pointer, the only one he would make all season. "If I lost a game on a shot like that," Pitino had said, "I don't know what I'd do." Now the Kentucky coach would find out.
Shower, Pitino told his team, and when you come out, I want to see no tears. "Do not," he said, "let two seconds determine your basketball life."
As his players dressed, they were, alas, only crying harder. Pitino produced the cover of the May 29, 1989, issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, the one that was billed "Kentucky's Shame" and reported on the Wildcats' two-year probation. "You've taken Kentucky all the way back from this," he told them.
And his players cried harder still. Pelphrey, true to the stereotype of a redhead's passionate nature, had invested the most and thus gotten fleeced the worst. Reporters found him sobbing against a bathroom stall. Pelphrey is plainspoken. thoughtful, funny—if he wouldn't talk, no Wildcat would. Could he share his thoughts on the season?
"I'd like to, but I can't...talk," he said.
On the team bus Pitino continued his attempts to console the inconsolable. My fault, he said. We should have had a guy on the ball. Now, get your heads up. But whatever he said made things worse. Back in the lobby of the players' hotel, where a knot of red-eyed boosters awaited them, the grief was so universal, so public, that it reminded the coach of visitation at a funeral. It was the uniform they wore, decided Pitino, a Catholic who had been a daily communicant over the final month of the season: it's like a priestly garment. They overachieve because of it. But it also means they take it so much worse when they lose."
Yet set aside the deflation of the moment, and the Wildcats had won something special—not absolute victory, to be sure, but something much more than a moral one. "That shot made Duke a winner," Dave Kindred would write in the Lexington Herald-Leader. "And in some wonderful, curious, ennobling way, that one shot also certified Kentucky as a winner. It had been beaten, but by a great team extended to its best work." In its failure this Kentucky team generated for itself in every quarter of the land something the Big Blue, college basketball's IBM, had hitherto never seemed worthy of, not through 1,530 victories and five NCAA titles. This Kentucky team got sympathy.