Duke 61, Butler 59

Big-time victory

Tiny Butler tries, but Duke wins hoop title

By Mark Blaudschun
Globe Staff / April 6, 2010

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INDIANAPOLIS — The last shot of the season came from just inside the halfcourt line and it carried the hopes and dreams of two improbable opponents in last night’s NCAA championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium.

For the Butler Bulldogs, who had carried a “Hoosier’’ type dream of winning the national title just 6 miles from their campus, it was a gut-wrenching heave by forward Gordon Hayward from just past midcourt that was dead on the mark but just a little too hard as it bounced off the rim and fell to the court.

For Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s Duke team, it was the end of a season in which the Blue Devils were more blue-collar than blue blood. They did not have a star on their roster, but enough good players to carry them to their fourth NCAA title, earning a 61-59 victory, much to the disappointment of the majority of the crowd of 70,930.

“You can’t put a stat on heart,’’ said Krzyzewski, whose four national championships move him into a second-place tie all-time with former Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp behind only former UCLA coach John Wooden’s 10 titles. “And this team had heart. I loved being with this team. I can’t believe we are national champions.’’

They almost weren’t. Hayward had a good look on the final shot and was nearly fouled.

“Not much to say from our end,’’ said Butler coach Brad Stevens. “We just came up one possession short in a game with about 145 possessions. It’s hard to stomach when you’re on the wrong end of that.’’

The teams jousted with each other throughout the first half and Duke clung to a 33-32 halftime lead, which it could not expand beyond 5 points in the second half.

The final minute of the game was a microcosm of the season for both teams, with Duke (35-5) displaying its poise and Butler proving it’s more than a Cinderella story.

When Butler forward Matt Howard put in a layup with 54.5 seconds left to cut the Duke lead to 60-59, the script seemed headed for a Hollywood ending.

Butler (33-5) had a chance when Hayward threw up a jumper from the corner that bounced off the rim and into the arms of Duke’s Brian Zoubek, who was immediately fouled with 3.6 seconds left.

Zoubek made the first and missed the second deliberately. Hayward grabbed the rebound, sprinted desperately up the court, and fired a shot as the buzzer went off.

“I just thought, please don’t,’’ said Duke guard Nolan Smith, who scored 13 points and was part of a Duke offense that kept the Devils a step ahead of the Bulldogs for most of the evening.

“It looked good. I was just praying it didn’t go in.’’

It didn’t and the Blue Devils seemed as relieved as they were excited.

“That was a great team we played tonight,’’ said Duke forward Kyle Singler, who had a game-high 19 points. “But this team found a way to win all year and we were going to find a way to win tonight.’’

The Bulldogs were equally drained.

“I was standing at halfcourt and I thought it was going in,’’ said Howard. “That makes it a little more devastating. You think that shot is going in and it rims out like it did.’’

Hayward tried to be matter of fact about it.

“Felt good, looked good,’’ he said. “Just wasn’t there. Just didn’t go in.’’