By John Feinstein
Tuesday, April 6, 2010; 12:45 AM
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.
As sad as the ending was for Butler, to say the Bulldogs have much to be proud of is a vast understatement. Just as they had done against Syracuse, Kansas State and Michigan State, they made it clear from the start against Duke that they weren't at all intimidated by the opponent or the setting.
In fact, if you were really looking for a clue to how Butler was going to approach this game, it came on the final play of Saturday's semifinal victory over Michigan State. When Hayward grabbed the final clinching rebound, he simply turned and put one finger in the air, jogging toward midcourt with the ball in his hands.
No celebration. No euphoria. It was simply game over, what's next.
That might explain why when Duke went on an 8-0 run to take a 26-20 lead with 5:08 left in the first half, there was absolutely no panic on the Butler bench. Stevens called a timeout and with Krzyzewski trying to steal some rest for Scheyer, the Bulldogs went on a quick 7-0 run to take the lead back in less than 90 seconds.
By then any notion that Duke was going to dominate Butler the way it dominated West Virginia had been laid to rest. Right from the start, it was apparent that the game was going to be played at Butler's pace. In their four victories leading to Monday night, the Bulldogs didn't score more than 63 points and didn't give up more than 59. There was little doubt that sort of game would suit them just fine and Duke appeared willing to play along.
Stevens also seemed to understand that attacking Duke's big men was a way to take away some of the Blue Devils' size advantage. Even though Howard was having trouble finishing around the basket, he quickly drew two fouls on Lance Thomas, forcing Krzyzewski to send in his Plumlees (Miles and Mason) earlier than he would have liked.
Like any team cast in the role of the villain, Duke looked tight. Smith missed three free throws, including the front end of a one-and-one that could have stretched Duke's halftime margin to 35-32. The most stunning statistic at the break though was the rebounding: Butler had a 24-17 margin, including 12 offensive rebounds that helped make up for 34 percent shooting from the field.
The other difference was the bench: Jukes produced 10 points for Butler, critical in the final moments of the half with Hayward struggling against very tight defense being played on him by Singler. Hahn also chipped in a three. Duke's bench produced zero points and one rebound.
All of which set up exactly the kind of game Butler had hoped for: close, low-scoring and, with each passing minute, the pressure growing on the favorites. The second half started much the way the first half ended: Butler attacking the basket, Duke trying to get something going on the perimeter. A pretty drive by Shelvin Mack put Butler up 40-38 with 16 minutes left but Smith, realizing he wasn't having any luck outside, sneaked inside to tie the game at 40.
It rocked back and forth from there, Duke building small leads of four and five, but unable to pull away. Butler's defense got stops when it had to and the Bulldogs seemed to make every bit shot they had to - until the very last one.
On Sunday night, Jim Scheyer, Jon's dad, went to get takeout for his son, who was sitting in his hotel room trying to kill time before the last and most important game of his college basketball career.
"The tough thing about this is knowing that if you don't win this game, you don't get to go down in history with the great teams," he said. "You can talk about all the great things these kids have accomplished but they all know this game is the one they're going to remember forever."
Actually, this was a game everyone will remember forever. As corny as it might sound, no one lost this game. And the biggest winner wasn't Duke - although the Blue Devils deserve all possible kudos for hanging on to win - it was the game of basketball.
In Indiana, that's the way it always should be.
For more from the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com.