Tournament tears: Why March is so special

I'm sitting at Gate A26 at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, about to board a Southwest flight to Baltimore. I'm in the B group, which would normally bother me more than it does this morning.

It's early still, but I can't seem to shake what I saw last night. There's a reason March is such a special month on the sports calendar. I'm not sure I'll ever get over the array of emotions that you see at an NCAA tournament game. And to be honest with you, I don't really want to.


There were tears in both locker rooms last night, after No. 3 seed Louisville ended the season of the top-seeded Terps. For me, it's what truly separates professional sports from college (aside from the money, of course).

At the pro level, even though bonuses, endorsement deals and millions of dollars might be on the line, you don't see the same level of unabashed joy. Similarly, you don't see near the same level of disappointment and sorrow either. On both ends, the emotional outburst is so raw, so true and sincere, that even as a spectator, it crawls under the skin. It finds its way into your bloodstream. One second you can taste the joy at midcourt, but then just seconds later feel your heart grow heavy in the losing locker room.

I won't soon forget Louisville's Angel McCoughtry (pictured below), a Baltimore native and St. Frances graduate, bouncing around the RBC Center court when the final buzzer sounded. I'm not sure why, but she screamed. "Where you at President Barack? I want to meet you, baby!" I liked that; I guess because I'll bet today she doesn't recall anything she said last night. McCoughtry was just lost in the moment.

Nor will I forget the look in Kristi Toliver's eyes, not far away in the Maryland locker room. In there it felt like a funeral service. The Terps were mourning not just the night's missed opportunities, but a season that ended too soon. A team that was good enough to win a national championship instead lost by 17 points to a No. 3 seed in the Elite Eight. Toliver tried to maintain a stiff lower lip. "We didn't want it to end," the senior said.

How often in sports are two extremes shoved so close together? Sorry, but it's not the same at the Super Bowl or the World Series or a golf major or maybe even the Olympics.

These are young people. They feel things deeply. Their world often doesn't extend beyond the weekend. And for the seniors especially, their collegiate careers have only a short wick. There's a profound sense of finality to the tournament that makes it different than any other championship.

To compound matters for the Maryland women, the Terps really thought they were going to the Final Four. And yes, they were good enough. They shed tears not just for this loss, not simply to mourning the season's end, but for disappointment and even for regret.

It's among my favorite clichés – the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. When you see it – when you see both emotions in a tender and vulnerable state – something inside of you is stirred. A tournament game is the full gamut of human emotions offered up to us on one serving dish. In Raleigh, similar to a dozen other sites these past two weeks, it's all separated by just a hallway in an arena. Tears are shed in each locker room. But they're not the same.

I'll never forget watching Coleman and Toliver celebrate winning a national championship in 2006. And I'll never forget seeing the pain in their eyes when they came up short in 2009.

Regardless of what CBS is splicing together, March isn't about One Shining Moment. For me, it's the collection of feelings. It's the disparate emotions that separate winning from losing. It's the way tears can fall, splash on a basketball court and forever represent two very, very different feelings.

Tournament tears: Why March is so special

Photos: Associated Press