The finish was excruciating and brought an end to Stanford's remarkable season. But Arthur Lee couldn't help breaking into a slight smile.
"We've already started thinking about next year," Stanford's star point guard said after the Cardinal, in the Final Four for the first time in 56 years, saw their NCAA tournament run stopped by Kentucky 86-85 in overtime Saturday."We've accomplished so much this year," said Lee, whose clutch tournament performances moved him out from under predecessor Brevin Knight's shadow. "We had 30 wins, a school record. We made it to the Final Four, almost made it to the national championship game. A lot of teams never get an opportunity to do this. Guys aren't down. We've enjoyed this. We've had fun."
Lee, who scored 52 points in his last two outings and went 35-for-35 from the free throw line during Stanford's five-game NCAA tournament run, has good reason for looking forward to next season.
The starting five of Lee, Kris Weems, Mark Madsen, Peter Sauer and Tim Young all will be back next season for Stanford (30-5), which began the year with 18 straight wins before being beaten by Arizona.
Young, Madsen and Sauer were part of the tallest frontline in Stanford's history and complemented the team's dynamic backcourt.
"I think if you look at us, we've progressed quite a bit and I think we've been pretty solid all year," said swingman Ryan Mendez. "We had our downspells against Arizona - we lost to them twice - but we bounced back from that and gave it our best run in the tournament.
"There's great possibilities for next year," Mendez said. "No question, we could be good enough next year, if we continue to work hard and improve ourselves, to come back to this level and win a few games."
Coach Mike Montgomery said he wouldn't dwell on how the season ended or agonize over whether his team could have done anything differently against Kentucky. In his mind, the Cardinal went head-to-head against one of the most storied programs in college basketball and competed on even terms.
"They're mortal," Montgomery said. "They're like us. They're a good basketball team but you can compete with them and that's good news for us. It's also a tribute to Tubby (Smith) for the great job he did to get them to the national championship game."
Montgomery said he'd rather reflect on Stanford's achievements and what they mean, in terms of bringing notice to the program to help recruiting as well as gearing up to meet the rising expectations for next season.
"We know we're a team that's going to be a focal point next year and that's great, because we earned it," Montgomery said. "And we will be a better basketball team next year. But that doesn't guarantee anything. It gives you an opportunity. What you do with the opportunity is the thing."
All things considered, this season in which Stanford set or tied 12 school records including most wins and most points was "really, pretty spectacular," Montgomery said.
"I don't have any remorse. I don't have any regrets," Montgomery added. "I'm not walking away from this with a pit in my stomach, feeling, `I should have done this, I could have done,' and I don't think the players are either. If you can't have a sense of satisfaction under these circumstances, you're going to have a tough time with everything."
Stanford will lose backup forward Pete Van Elswyk and reserve guard Kamba Tshionyi to graduation and Montgomery's top assistant, Doug Oliver, also is leaving to take the head coaching job at Idaho State.
Montgomery said that he and most of the team would remain in San Antonio to attend Monday night's national title game between Kentucky and Utah before going back home.