Did Butler Really Lose to Those Guys?
So close that the losers didn't cry.
Instead, Butler's players and coaches were their typically composed selves when late Monday night became early Tuesday morning at Lucas Oil Stadium after Gordon Hayward came within a bulldog's hair on each of his two shots inside the final 13 seconds of winning a national championship.
Did I say those Butler folks were composed? Try shocked. They weren't the only ones, because everybody among the packed house of 70,930 knew that Hayward's first shot was in, and that his second one was in, and that nobody outside of Durham, N.C., wanted to see those from the insufferable Duke program cutting down nets for a fourth time during the reign of King Mike Krzyzewski.
"We're just in a state of disbelief," said Butler guard Ronald Nored, still shaking his head with the memory of Butler's 61-59 loss to the Blue Devils in a Final Four thriller. I mean, Hayward's first shot was right there -- a potential game-winner for the ages, a fadeaway beauty over Duke's 7-foot-1 monster Brian Zoubek, a shot that hit the back of the rim before falling into the arms of a Duke defender. Said Hayward later, "Caught it, tried to go left, went back right. (Zoubek) played good defense. Forced me into a tough shot."
No problem, because there was that second chance, because the season for the new darlings of college basketball couldn't end like this.
So there was Hayward again, but only at the very end this time, with the clock ticking toward zero, and with his attempt coming from just inside half court, where he launched a prayer that was answered after it kissed the backboard, and then it bounced against the front of the rim, and then ...
And then ...
We're stuck with more Duke smugness.
Nored still couldn't fathom that neither of Hayward's shots dropped. The same went for those throughout the solar system, especially his teammates, who sat motionlessly at their lockers with blank expressions. Added Nored, among the Bulldogs' leaders, "It's been so long since we had this feeling. It's also the last game of the season. We wanted it to end on a positive note. I guess you can learn so many things from a game like this, but right now, I'm in disbelief."
Yeah, well. Everybody is, because it was right there -- Butler's 26th consecutive victory, the first national championship ever for a mid-major and the slaying of a team that many wish would just go away.
Let's turn from disbelief to what we can believe.
That is, Butler wasn't a fairy tale. Butler was for real. Just check the bite marks on almighty Duke from a bunch of Bulldogs who turned what the foolish thought would be a blowout of a national championship game into a classic.
It's always the little things for Butler. For instance: Logic says no team that shoots 34 percent from the floor for an entire evening (OK, I'm talking about Butler) should be this close to winning it all. It's just that logic doesn't show that the smallish Bulldogs came just shy of matching the big boys of Duke in rebounds at 35 to the Blue Devils' 37, and that Butler had eight turnovers to Duke's 12, and that Butler played its typical brand of suffocating team defense, and that Butler was just a hustling machine.
Remember, too, that Butler was much of that -- not only during its steady march to the Final Four this season, but for many seasons before this one. The Bulldogs have managed 20 or more victories five straight years and 12 times in the past 14 seasons. They had two trips to the Sweet 16 during their previous six seasons. They also have sustained excellence with what they call The Butler Way since the late 1990s despite four different head coaches.
The latest of those coaches is Brad Stevens, a youngish 33, who had this bunch ranked around the nation's top 10 for most of the season. It became apparent after the Bulldogs defeated the likes of Syracuse, Kansas State and Michigan State during the NCAA tournament that they were even more potent than that.
And Butler had this hoops powerhouse conquered, too, but Stevens' postgame analysis was about right. "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. But like I told them in there. When you coach these guys with their effort, their focus, their determination, you're at peace with whatever result happens on the scoreboard, because you've got a group that's given it every single thing they have. These guys did that."
They did it methodically, without the hint of the gee-whiz mentality of those who truly are just glad to be here in these situations. In fact, the Bulldogs took the court for pregame warmups, the opening tip-off and the majority of the game with the look of the most confident underdog in the history of dribbling.
They never smiled -- not even a little bit -- and this was despite all of those roars directed their way whenever they breathed inside Hinkle Fieldhouse South, otherwise known as Lucas Oil Stadium, located six miles from campus.
Said Nored, "We were having a lot of fun out there, and it wasn't so much a matter of not smiling. It was just that we were really focused."
So focused despite having to battle more than a few weird calls from officials, which is always the case when Duke is involved. Most glaringly, Duke's Lance Thomas pulled Hayward violently to the court to keep the Butler swingman from making a key layup down the stretch. With King Krzyzewski mouthing to officials that Thomas hit "all ball," Thomas somehow wasn't called for an intentional foul.
Hayward got two foul shots.
He made both of them.
That's opposed to what Hayward did with those other two shots -- you know, the ones which actually went in, if only in our sweetest dreams.