LEXINGTON, Ky. — For the first time all night, Chris Mullin was free. He had done his bit in the postgame interview area, and now the St. John's All-American was leading his teammates on a fast break to the team bus.
Some writers were waiting for him in the parking lot, but Mullin went out the backdoor and onto the bus.
Sorry, he said.
Maybe he simply couldn't handle the thought of being surrounded any longer, even by some undersized sportswriters.
His college career had just ended, the way most of them end--unhappily. It's the nature of the NCAA tournament that only one team leaves it a winner, and when Georgetown is one of the teams, unhappy endings are generally the only kind available for everyone else.
No one knows that better than Mullin, who has been stalked--literally--by Georgetown over the years.
On Saturday evening, the Hoyas caught him. They put Mullin in a box and never let him up, even for air.
Using a box-and-one defense, with David Wingate the stalker, Georgetown held Mullin to eight points, the first time in 101 games he had not scored in double figures.
With Mullin taken care of, St. John's was easy work, and Georgetown beat the Redmen, 77-59, in an NCAA semifinal that was the fourth meeting between the teams this season. On Monday night, Georgetown plays Villanova--for the third time--for a chance to win another national championship.
"It's probably the toughest defense to play against," Mullin said at the press conference. "You kind of get frustrated."
Georgetown's defense is always tough. Mullin knows that. In fact, he said he couldn't see much difference between how the Hoyas played him Saturday and how they had played him so many times in the past. He knew the box-and-one was coming; what he didn't know was that it could be made to work so well.
Mullin got off only eight shots all night, making half of them. In the second half, he didn't attempt his first shot, a long jumper that missed, until there was 11:12 left in the game.
Twice in the late going, he tried to put the ball on the floor and take it to the basket. Both times, he was stripped clean.
Now, this is the Wooden Award winner, along with Patrick Ewing one of the two foremost college basketball players in the land. He's a great shooter, a great passer, the consummate team player, and no one moves any better without the ball than Chris Mullin does.
His coach, Lou Carnesecca, tried everything. In the first half, when Georgetown jumped on St. John's, 10-2, he called a timeout just to figure a way to spring Mullin loose. Nothing worked.
Mullin ran around, trying to break off screens, but always someone was there.
"If I beat the first man, they got Patrick and the other guys coming at me," Mullin said. He shook his head. It was a frustrating night. "When I did get the ball, I was usually too far away to do anything," he said.
It was a strange sight, watching this Olympian hero, this certain NBA star, being treated so rudely. His lowest previous NCAA tournament total had been 14 points, in his freshman season.
"We tried to give him a pick right and a pick left," Carnesecca said, "but this is the best I've eve seen them play defense."
In the previous two games, Georgetown had hounded Mullin, using the traditional box-and-one, in which four players form a box and a fifth chases Mullin. The last time they played, Wingate held Mullin without a basket for a 15-minute stretch to start the second half. But still Mullin scored 46 points in the two games. Eventually, he got his.
On this night, there was no chance.
On this final night.
So after the game, when he had a chance to break clear, he sought the refuge of the bus. An assistant coach was sent on to ask Mullin to come out and answer more questions. Mullin refused. A trainer was sent, and another rejection. Finally, Brian Mahoney, another assistant coach, persuaded Mullin to share his thoughts.
"I need an encore to come back," he said, a sheepish smile on his face.
Mullin has defined the St. John's program, one that has come so close to a championship. He had a near-perfect game against Georgetown last season in St. John's victory. And this season in the first time they met, he broke the Hoyas' press by himself and St. John's won again. The Redmen were the No. 1 team in the country, at least in the polls.
Then they met Georgetown again, and again, and again. Playing in the tough Big East, St. John's lost four times this season--three times to Georgetown.
What was there for Mullin to say?
He had hit a jumper in the first half that tied the score at 26-26. It was the lone bright spot for St. John's, but Mullin was not fooled by the brief surge.
"I don't think we really had a run at them," he said. "We were playing pretty good for a while, but they were in control the whole game."
There was something matter-of-fact in the way he said it. He had seen Georgetown too many times before, and he knew what could happen.
"I don't know if they play as well against other teams as they do against us," he said. "They kind of go all out against us."
The first time he ever played against Georgetown and Patrick Ewing, Mullin was shut out, missing all six shots. But, somehow, this was worse, much worse.
"Because it's all over," he said, adding, "The sting hasn't hit now."
After the game, Ewing, Mullin's longtime rival, came over to shake his hand. Ewing told Mullin, "Good game, good career."
They were the right words; it was just the wrong night.
His coach, who has called him a once-in-a-lifetime player, tried to console Mullin after the game.
"I gave him a big kiss," Carnesecca said. "I gave them all a big kiss."
An era had ended at St. John's, without the hoped-for NCAA title, and now Mullin will take his jump shot to the NBA. The thought must comfort him, unless he remembers that Patrick Ewing will be there, too, somewhere. Waiting for him.