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Louisville packs up its season

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Pitino: 'The whole locker room is crying' (2:24)

An emotional Rick Pitino joins Allison Williams after Louisville's season comes to an end with a loss to Virginia, saying, "I'm sorry it had to end with a bad loss. That's Virginia." (2:24)

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Holding a pink pair of ink-stained Adidas in his hands, a sneaker scrapbook of his one season at Louisville, Damion Lee was asked whether he'd keep the special pair of shoes.

"Well when the season is over ..." Lee began.

Then he paused and laughed a gallows' laugh.

"Oh wait," he said. "The season is over now."

And then he looked down again at the sneakers, signed from toe to heel with his teammates' autographs, their initials written up the base of one shoe and their numbers down the base of the other.

"These are special," he said. "No matter what, these are special."

March is the best and worst month for college basketball players, the promise of possibility colliding with the fear of finality. But most guys are at least given the gift of ignorance. They don't know when the end is coming. The abruptness might seem cruel, but even for a 16-seed, the game at least tips off with a degree of hope.

Louisville, serving a self-imposed postseason ban, walked into John Paul Jones Arena on Saturday night knowing that this was it.

Not lose and go home, but win, lose, draw and go home.

That the Cards went out in flames, exiting March and the 2015-16 season like a lamb in a 68-46 whupping at the hands of Virginia, is almost a footnote here. Once North Carolina beat Duke to secure the ACC title, Louisville quite literally had nothing to play for except finishing the string.

So when the buzzer did sound and the end was here -- before Selection Sunday, before the three-week binge watch of the NCAA tournament, before the first strain of "One Shining Moment," before everything that matters begins -- it was weirdly different. Not the abrupt thud that seasons end with but more a fade to black.

Senior Trey Lewis pointed a finger toward the rafters as he walked off the court, his head high, a strange skip in his step. Lee followed, the last to leave. With a towel draped over his head and Mangok Mathiang's arm around him, Lee walked through the tunnel with the stunned look of a defeated boxer.

"I think they were going through that tunnel and they finally saw the end of the tunnel," coach Rick Pitino said. "And it was a very emotional locker room."

Lee, along with Lewis, arrived at Louisville intent on doing something special. This was to be their moment, shining or otherwise, to make a name for themselves. Transfers from Drexel and Cleveland State, they would make a name for themselves on the high-profile Cardinals, prove their worth to the world.

They did all of those things, just not at all how they expected.

People in Louisville won't soon forget Lee and Lewis, not because of how they played but for how they endured. The seniors became the face of NCAA inequality to many, victims of a crime they didn't commit. The alleged crime is salacious -- sex parties with recruits and players at a team dormitory, paid for by a former staff member, under the nose of a Hall of Fame coach -- but the players somehow have managed to rise above it.

"This season, with everything we've been through, we've learned so much about dealing with adversity," Lee said. "We wanted the focus to be on basketball and we made sure that it was."

Of course, this is merely the end of the season for Louisville, not the rest of this story. Pitino remained slightly cagey when asked about his future. He announced staff changes -- David Padgett will move into an assistant spot now that Ralph Willard is retiring -- even though Pitino is not saying if it will be his staff and admitted that a statement of support from Larry Benz, the chairman of the university board of trustees, made him feel "80 percent" better. But he still would not affirm that he intends to return to the school, instead joking that he intends to replace Steve Kerr for a year and coach the Golden State Warriors.

The NCAA case, meantime, is months away from completion. The university has yet to receive a notice of allegations, the first step in the lengthy process of eventually reaching a penalty phase. A ruling might not come until the start of next season.

Then again, a season's end is never tidy. There are locker rooms to empty and gear to be returned.

But as the managers swept up the last bag inside Louisville's locker room, there was one item they weren't going to get.

Lee took his pink sneakers and stuffed them inside his backpack, slung the backpack on his shoulder and walked to the bus.

"I think," he said, "I'll probably keep these."