This ending fell just short of perfect
It was that close to being the perfect ending. There was Gordon Hayward grabbing the final rebound of an extraordinary national championship game Monday night and finding his way through pressure to just across the midcourt line and somehow getting a shot off over Kyle Singler. The buzzer went off with the ball in the air.
In the movies, the ball would have hit the backboard and dropped through the hoop to create the most amazing finish in NCAA tournament history. Instead, it hit the backboard and then the front rim and . . . rattled off. The shot missed by perhaps two inches - at most.
And so the finish to this remarkable 18 days of basketball was written in Durham, N.C., not Hollywood, as Duke barely hung on for a 61-59 victory in a national title game that will be remembered for years even without a finish worthy of a motion picture.
For Duke and Coach Mike Krzyzewski it meant a fourth national title, putting Krzyzewski into the most rarified coaching air there is - short of John Wooden. He has now won more national championships than any coach other than Wooden (10) and Adolph Rupp (four). That said, Krzyzewski's four titles have come in an era in which it is far more difficult to win the championship.
"All due respect to Coach Wooden and Coach Rupp, it's much harder now to win one, much less four," said Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim. "What Mike's done is one of the greatest accomplishment in the history of the game."
Although Butler came up short - or, more accurately, two inches long - the Bulldogs' run in this tournament won't be forgotten anytime soon. This game was no different than the previous four they had won to get here. Every time they fell behind and appeared to be in trouble, they found a way to make a play at one end of the court or the other to get right back in the game.
The final sequence of the season played out almost exactly like that. After Duke had taken a 60-55 lead with 3 minutes 16 seconds remaining on two Nolan Smith free throws, the Bulldogs scored the next four points and then got the stop they had to have when Smith missed a runner in the lane with 33 seconds left.
Trailing 60-59, the Bulldogs set up their Jimmy Chitwood - Hayward - but his well-defended baseline jumper bounced out and Brian Zoubek, Duke's unsung hero throughout this tournament, grabbed the rebound with 3.6 seconds on the clock. He made the first free throw and then missed the second intentionally so Butler wouldn't have a chance to run a play off an inbounds pass.
That strategy almost backfired thanks to Hayward, who got a great screen from Matt Howard and actually had some space to launch his shot. When it missed, the air went out of most of the crowd of 70,930 packed into Lucas Oil Stadium, except at the end where the Duke fans and students were seated.
These are the names to remember: Hayward, Shelvin Mack, Ronald Nored, Willie Veasley, Zach Hahn, Avery Jukes, Matt Howard and Coach Brad Stevens, who matched one of the game's great masters chess move for chess move all night long. That said, Duke has to be credited for taking every Butler punch and responding, including coming up with a great defensive possession when the season was on the line. As good as Hayward is, he had to force a fallaway jumper with his team down one and Singler - as he had been all night - in his face.