MARCH 26, 2001

The clock blinked toward the inevitable, and when the numbers told him he was done, the old man got up off one knee and let the last shout die in his throat, stillborn. And then, with his my-feet-are-killing-me gait, he limped to the opponents' bench, there to hand over his sword and shake the conquerors' hands.

Close again. So close. So achingly, tantalizingly, this-isn't-fair close.

Temple lost to Michigan State, 69-62, yesterday. It only lost on the scoreboard, though.

And John Chaney, for the fifth time, was left one exit short of the Final Four.

But the old man said that no tears should be shed for him, even though he had to hide his own face and swipe at his own mist while he listened to his players choke and splutter about how they had let him down.

"I'm feeling very high and very low at the moment," he said. "Low because I couldn't get them to the Final Four. High because they got me this far."

The Owls fought the good fight, right to the end, as you knew they would. They wrung from themselves all of their juices, and if it looked to you as if maybe they hadn't brought their A game to the Georgia Dome, well, the opponents had something to do with that.

Temple had a season to remember - especially those last three star-spangled weeks. The Owls' glorious ride on the rocket came to its end with them splattered across the broad and brawny Spartans, who are the defending national champions, who have won their last 10 NCAA tournament games, and who defend maniacally and rebound like rolling thunder.

And, oh, yes, one other thing: The PA announcer says, "Michigan State substitutes . . ." and then it seems as if he is reading the phone book. All of it. The white and yellow pages.

The Spartans are deep.

The Owls were not.

The Owls never led, and when they got to the final five minutes, they looked as if herds of large livestock had been leaning on them all afternoon.

Just about everyone wanted the old man to win and get to the Final Four because, frankly, the Final Four needs him rather than the other way around. And, of course, he wants to go there, too. But he was admirably philosophical about not making it again, finding the long view and the life lesson.

"Sometimes you dream so hard that you dream your dream right into a nightmare," he said.

"These youngsters were counted out a few weeks ago, and what they did moves me to - well, they'll get over this, and so will I. I've been through it enough times. Very often, you know, our dreams and hopes and aspirations come to a short end.

"But if you see growth in your kids - and effort and energy - well, maybe that's the highest compliment you'll ever reach. So maybe you ought to feel pretty good about that. "

His voice was a whisper by then. But then his eyes flashed, and he breathed that dragon flame again, and he said: "But keep dreaming. Keep dreaming. "

Well, he will be 70 next January. His contract has another year left. And, yes, he said, he plans to be back next season, fussing at the players, just like always. And you know that he'll win 20 again and get to dance again, and maybe he'll make still another run at the Emerald City.

He made all the right moves yesterday.

When the Owls were getting manhandled on the boards, he put in Ron Rollerson, who is approximately the size of the Chrysler Building. Rollerson, who is injured, usually buys a couple of minutes for center Kevin Lyde when Lyde is in foul trouble. But Chaney played them together, and Rollerson's presence ate up enough room that Lyde couldn't be doubled-teamed and Lyde wound up with 21 points and eight rebounds.

In the second half, Chaney went back to four guards and a center, put in the quick Greg Jefferson, and sprang a half-court trap that befuddled Michigan State. The Spartans became tentative and treated the ball carelessly. Very soon, the Owls were within three points.

But the better team responded and pulled away.

Chaney pressed all the correct buttons. Temple just didn't have enough of them.

Michigan State is an inelegant shooting team. In fact, it reminds you of the typical Temple team, this season's Owls being an exception. But whenever the Spartans take a 12-footer and shoot it 16 feet, there always seem to be at least three of them with their hands on the rebound. Their offense is basketball's version of hockey's dump-and-chase style.

The Spartans' defense took Quincy Wadley and Lynn Greer out of the game in the first half, when they shot a combined 3 for 14. Greer recovered, but Wadley never could get loose, never was allowed to find his stroke.

"You'd get past your man and there was always another one waiting for you," he said with respect.

Wadley ended up 2 for 12. He had shot the Owls this far, and then he shot them out of the tournament. Such is the way of .

"I've always said we deal with the known and leave the unknown alone, and I'll live and die with that," Chaney said.

Yesterday, he died with it. The unknown came in the slinky, long-armed form of David Thomas, who had averaged five points a game this season and who had earned his keep with his defense. Chaney told his players: "We'll make him be the one to beat us. "

Thomas proceeded to shoot 8 for 10 and scored almost four times his average.

"The wrong guy kept making shots," Chaney said, rubbing his scalp in frustration.

And his right guys struggled to make theirs.

"It reminds you," he said, "how very difficult it is to get [to the Final Four]. One missed rebound, one missed ball in your hands . . ."

He squeezed his hands, as if to clutch an imaginary ball.

Or maybe to squeeze his dream one more time.