Men's Basketball

Butler came oh-so-close to the perfect ending

INDIANAPOLIS — When the midcourt shot reached the top of its arc, when it seemed to scrape not just the roof of Lucas Oil Stadium, but the bottom of the heavens, you just knew that this was to be the perfect ending to a storybook tournament.

After all, it was a shot by Gordon Hayward, the Butler Bulldog from nearby Brownsburg, who had led this mid-major team all the way to this championship game. And if anyone could win it on a dramatic halfcourt heave it would be Hayward.

If any team could write its own version of Hoosiers, surely it was Butler.

"I thought it had a chance," Hayward said.

Ah, but Hoosiers was a movie with a perfect ending.

This was imperfect reality.

And in this reality, Hayward's shot hit the backboard, hung on the front of the rim, and then the ball fell off.

Duke won.

"But they didn't lose," said Mike Krzyzewski, the winning coach.

Duke deserved to win, since the Blue Devils outshot, outrebounded and outscored the Bulldogs 61-59 to give Coach K his fourth national title — tying Kentucky's Adolph Rupp — in what was an epic final game played before 70,930.

And Duke owned the difference, he being the 6-foot-9 pasty-faced assassin named Kyle Singler, who scored 19 points and grabbed nine rebounds, and made seven of his 13 shots.

But the difference in this game was so miniscule, that it made such a joy to watch, possession-by-possession.

"We knew we left it all on the court," said Shelvin Mack, the Butler guard and Lexington native, who scored a dozen points. "We didn't take anything back to the locker room."

Brad Stevens, the Butler coach, said, "We just came up one possession short in a game of 145 possessions."

No possession, or no made shot might have been bigger than the one Singler drained off a curl from the right wing that gave the Blue Devils a 58-55 lead with 4:46 remaining.

"Singler was obviously the toughest guy for us to defend because of his size," said Stevens.

And when Duke guard Nolan Smith converted two free throws with 3:16 left, in the same town where his late father Derek won a title with Louisville 30 years ago, the Blue Devils seemed home free, up 60-56.

Yet, Butler didn't advance this far by throwing in the towel. A Matt Howard basket off a Hayward assist cut the lead to 60-57. And when Smith missed a point-blank drive on one end, and Howard somehow broke free for an easy layup on the other, the Blue Devil lead was just 60-59.

Then when Singler came up shockingly short on a wide open shot, and the rebound was inadvertently kicked out of bounds by one of Brian Zoubek's large feet, Butler had its chance to write the Hollywood ending.

"We had two shots to win it," Stevens said.

First, Hayward missed a forced fadeaway over Zoubek's outstretched hand.

"It felt good, it looked good," said Hayward. "It just wasn't there."

After the Duke center grabbed the rebound and was fouled, he made the first free throw with 3.6 seconds left, extending the Blue Devils' lead to two points.

With Butler out of timeouts, Zoubek purposely missed the second. Hayward rebounded, then turned up court with the ball but precious little time.

Butler's best player dribbled down the right side, hit the midcourt line and heaved it toward the heavens.

"Any time you've got a player of Gordon's caliber and he's got the ball and he lets it fly," Stevens said, "you've got a chance to win."

It had a chance, too, the ball striking the upper part of that red square, just the way you're supposed to strike it. It caromed to the front of the rim, but with just a little too much force.

Just a little too much.

"It was a last-second shot," said Hayward, his head down. "It just missed."

You could have said that about a perfect ending to what was a near-perfect game.

Just missed.

Reach John Clay at 859-231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.

Reach John Clay at 859-231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.

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