Duke makes yet another painful tourney exit

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Let's say your significant other dumps you -- via text message. Your dog runs away -- to go live with your ex-significant other. Your boss calls you worthless -- your car gets stolen (and your laptop was in the car, by the way). And your best friend is moving to New Guinea.

Wow, would you feel like crap.

But you probably wouldn't feel worse than Duke's women do right now.

The Blue Devils, the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, are finished -- losing 53-52 to No. 4 seed Rutgers in the Greensboro Regional's semifinal. Duke fell in just about the most painful fashion imaginable.

Strike that -- no one could have imagined senior guard Lindsey Harding on the foul line with the absolute least amount of time left you can have in a basketball game -- .01 of a second -- needing two free throws to win and one to send the game to overtime.

And then hitting the back rim twice.

"The thing that shocked me the most is they both came off feeling really good," said Harding, who entered the game having hit 75.9 percent of her free throws this season. "Usually when you shoot -- after all these years of playing -- as soon as the ball comes off your fingertips, you know if it's in or out. I wanted to shoot it, I wanted that position. I released the ball, and the first one missed and it was complete shock -- 'Oh, my goodness.'

"But at that point, you don't want to adjust or anything, you just want to shoot the ball. And the second one came off feeling just as good. And it just didn't go in."

Duke coach Gail Goestenkors said, "My heart breaks for her right now. I don't want this to be her lasting memory, because she's meant so much to this program for so many years."

Duke got its first NCAA No. 1 seed in 2001. The only season since then that the Blue Devils have not been a No. 1 seed was 2005, when they were a No. 2. And here's what has happened:

• 2001: Southwest Missouri State's Jackie Stiles goes nuts against Duke in the Sweet 16, scoring 41 points and handing the Devils an 81-71 loss.

• 2002: Duke loses by 15 to Oklahoma in the NCAA semifinals.

• 2003: Devils fall by 10 to Tennessee in the NCAA semifinals.

• 2004: Alana Beard's Duke career ends with an 82-75 loss to Minnesota in the Elite Eight.

• 2005: Duke falls by 10 to LSU in the Elite Eight.

• 2006: Maryland's Kristi Toliver ties the NCAA title game with a 3-pointer with six seconds left. Then the Terps win by three in overtime.

Which brings us to this year's Duke nightmare, in which the Blue Devils led by as many as 10 points early in the second half.

Here's some freakish irony: Before Duke faced Temple in the second round, I talked to Owls coach and former Virginia standout Dawn Staley about the comparison between her career -- three straight Final Fours, no title -- and Harding's. Staley thought back on the Cavaliers' 1991 title-game loss to Tennessee, in particular.

"We were up four in that game with a minute and 20 seconds left," she said. "You give me that situation, and I'd think we would never lose."

Saturday, Duke was up by four … with 1:20 left. You might not have thought the Blue Devils could lose, either. But they did.

Who is writing these postseason scripts for Duke? The ghost of Edgar Allan Poe, with input from the Vlad the Impaler?

Maybe in next season's NCAA Tournament, Carrem Gay will get walled up in a wine cellar, a black cat will attack Abby Waner, Wanisha Smith will be haunted by a raven, Joy Cheek will fall into a pit and Brittany Mitch will get knocked out by a pendulum.

They were all wearing the Masque of Blue Devil Death on Saturday. Waner, in particular, looked like she might not stop crying until next March.

But it was the worst, of course, for seniors Alison Bales and Harding. Bales, who had one of her better games of a terrific season with 21 points, four rebounds and four blocked shots, sat in front of her locker trying to hold it together after the game.

Roommate Emily Waner came over and hugged her, and Bales broke down.

"I played pretty terrible against Temple … and I was trying to get back on track," Bales said a little later. "I feel like I had a decent game. But if you don't win, it doesn't really matter."

Harding was not crying when the media came to ask all the difficult questions they have to ask after games like this. As reporters filed in to join the small pack around Harding, she was asked a couple of times, "Um, about those free throws …"

"Question of the day," she said with a sad laugh. "I'm trying to make light of this."

As if. Then Harding continued, "I was really comfortable, and it felt good both times. It came off perfectly. I don't know, some days you just can't hit them."

Bales pointed out, though, that it took a pretty amazing sequence from Harding to put her at the line to begin with. That came after some Blue Devils miscues, though, including one by Harding.

Here's how the final 1:20 played out. Rutgers' Matee Ajavon hit a 3-pointer with 47 seconds left. Bales had a good look at a free-throw line jumper, but she missed. Smith got the rebound, but then it was stolen away by Rutgers rookie Epiphanny Prince. She went coast-to-coast to score with 20 seconds left, giving the Scarlet Knights their first lead of the second half.

Essence Carson stole the ball from Harding with six seconds left, and Abby Waner fouled to stop the clock. However, that was just the fourth team foul for the Blue Devils. They couldn't foul enough in the short time left to put Rutgers on the line. Their only hope was a steal.

And … astonishingly, they got it on a play where Harding looked like a cornerback in football.

"I was guarding Ajavon, and I watched her eyes, and her eyes went in the air," Harding said. "And I was like, 'The ball's up somewhere.' And as soon as I turned around, it was right there.

"And I got it, and attacked and saw there was three seconds. And I had to do whatever I could to get a good shot off."

She drove the lane and was fouled by Rutgers freshman Myia McCurdy -- who, incidentally, later admitted she did indeed foul Harding. Carson said as Harding went to the line, she kept thinking, "Believe." What else could she do? The game at that point was solely in Harding's hands.

Here was a player who was suspended for an undisclosed violation of team rules in the 2004-05 season, sat on the bench, watched and learned. In this, her fifth year at Duke, she has been fantastic. She was named ACC Player of the Year and is a national player of the year candidate.

Goestenkors said she wouldn't have wanted the ball in anyone else's hands.

Who can say what the brain does to the body in such moments? How many times have we seen this in sports? How many times will we see it again? How many times will Harding shoot those free throws again in her mind?

Yet it shouldn't be like that. Sometimes, the so-called simplest thing in basketball is the absolute toughest. You couldn't just write a book on missed free throws costing great teams in big games. You could write an entire encyclopedia.

"She's going to take this one pretty hard," Bales said of Harding, "but she needs to remember it's not her fault. She's done a great job with this team all season. And particularly with the last play, she was the reason she got to shoot the free throws. She got a steal that she shouldn't have gotten. She did a good job for us and she's done a good job all year."

Harding said she will try to put this loss, this season and her career in the proper perspective. It's impossible to do in the immediate pain after the loss. It usually feels even worse the next day. And it's an ache for a while after that.

"We win as a team, we lose as a team," Harding said. "There is a lot we wish we could take back. Right now, it's hard. Later, it will be fine. We'll get over it and move on. I feel so blessed and know I'm lucky enough that I can move on and keep playing. And the same with Ali."

Both will be picked high in the WNBA draft on April 4 in Cleveland. But they were hoping to also be celebrating a national championship that day.

After the game, I found myself -- absurdly -- thinking about the "Happy Days" episode where Richie goes to the line needing to hit two foul shots for his team to go into overtime. He makes the first and misses the second. His team loses. The gym empties. Later he stands there, alone, and swishes them.

When it doesn't count, they are so easy to make.

Mr. Cunningham comes over and offers his son a Life Saver … poking fun at a 1970s commercial. Feeling down? Have a Life Saver and feel better.

No matter who you were rooting for Saturday, Duke or Rutgers, you probably wished you could have given Lindsey Harding a Life Saver afterward. Even though it wouldn't really help.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.