Of course it hurts. The end always does. Even if it can't possibly undo all the keepsake snapshots that preceded it.

A Temple team that had won its last seven games to crash your NCAA bracketfest for the first time in 7 years didn't play nearly as well as it needed to yesterday at the Pepsi Center. Maybe the stage was a little too much for the Owls to handle. It wasn't supposed to be a vintage Michigan State club they'd drawn. Still, it was a group of Spartans who had been here before.

There is a difference. And it was evident.

The Owls (21-13), the 12th seed in the South Region, never looked like the same bunch that had finished off an unforeseen ride by winning the Atlantic 10 championship Saturday night in Atlantic City. Fifth-seeded MSU (26-8) obviously had something to do with that, at both ends. But a part of what went down was also self-inflicted.

MSU advanced, 72-61, to tomorrow's second round, where Pitt awaits. The Owls flew home to contemplate what they had accomplished, an opportunity lost and the work left on the horizon.

They weren't even NIT-worthy in early January. Then somehow, someway, they figured it out and found their way. You can't put a value on the step they took, for second-year coach Fran Dunphy and the future.

"It was a special year for us," said junior Dionte Christmas. "Couldn't ask for nothing else. "

Except, obviously, another game to play. Or at least to go out landing a few punches.

Mostly, they swung and missed.

It was tied after 11 minutes. But the signs were ominous. The Owls went 5 minutes without a field goal. By the half, they trailed 35-26. The good news was, MSU's Drew Neitzel had three points at the break. But Christmas had yet to make a shot, and Mark Tyndale had a bucket. Their frustration showed. And never really went away.

The Spartans opened the second half on a 13-4 run. The lead got to 19, with 9 minutes to go. The Owls did score eight straight, on four layups, to get within 10 about 5 minutes later. But it wasn't happening.

These Spartans haven't always defended like Tom Izzo wants. This time they did. Christmas went 1-for-12, 0-for-8 from the arc. Tyndale did manage to get 16 points, but almost all of them came too late to have much impact. Ryan Brooks had 14 off the bench. And freshman Lavoy Allen had 13, to go with 11 rebounds.

Wasn't nearly enough.

Neitzel (2-for-11) never got it going, but other guys did. Raymar Morgan had 15 points. Seventh man Chris Allen had a dozen, and Drew Naymick 10. The Spartans not named Neitzel made 24 of 43.

"We weren't just playing Michigan State today," Dunphy said. "We were playing the last 10 or 12 years of Michigan State. We had to play our best in order to win. I thought it was a really good team effort by Michigan State. "

The last month or so, that's what most of Temple's opponents had been saying about the Owls.

"You just don't want it to end," said senior Chris Clark, who was such a big part of the transformation but played only 13 minutes in this one because of the matchups. "We did so much to get here. If you had told me at the start of the season that we'd be representing the Atlantic 10 in the NCAA Tournament, I probably would have laughed. This hurts. But you can't take that away from us. "

No, you can't. The Owls made a statement, for a program that used to be in this thing every March. And about every third year was still around come the second weekend.

"My goal was to get to an NCAA Tournament," said Tyndale, the other piece who won't be back. "Mardy Collins never got a chance to get to this point. We've shown a lot of growth. I think we've left it in good shape.

"In the first half, maybe we were just a little happy to be out there. You can't put yourself in a hole against a team like that. But everything we did was a learning experience. I guess this was no different. "

Maybe the Owls will get back next year. Or not. Nothing's a given, as these Owls proved.

"It's not an easy task," Dunphy said. "Sometimes, you're going to get frustrated [in a game like this]. You have to fight through that.

"Our season's over, but getting better is never over. We had a terrific season. We're going to celebrate that. We were disappointed today. There wasn't a lot of tears of sadness in [the locker room]. I hope that means they're ready to continue to . . . work. "

Because he wouldn't approach it any other way.

"I think coach Dunphy did a great job of getting us back to this point, where we deserved to be," Tyndale said. "We weren't surprised at all about the outcome of our season. We would have liked to play a little bit longer. "

Which will put them in the same boat as about 64 other teams by April 7. Only one goes home with the biggest nets. The rest can only deal with what if. For these Owls, it only ended the wrong way. They can't change that. But that's not the whole story.

"We came out here to do a job," Christmas said. "We didn't get it done. I definitely, definitely want to get back here again. But I don't want to be sitting in this position. I want to advance to the next round. "

Sure sounds like a logical leap.