INDIANAPOLIS – As it ended, with Gordon Hayward pushing up a shot as he crossed the half-court line, you thought there was a chance. After all, by then, Butler had expanded one's sense of possibility.
But the ball hit the backboard, caromed off the rim, and the next thing you heard was a pop. Then another. Followed by streamers and confetti. The Duke players sprinted toward the middle of the court. The celebration of their national championship -- the fourth in coach Mike Krzyzewski's 30 seasons at Duke -- had begun. Theirs was a much-deserved carnival, as the Blue Devils had been tested more severely than most of us had anticipated.
"The toughest game we played all year," said Jon Scheyer, the point guard.
"I've been fortunate enough to be in eight national championship games, and this was a classic," Krzyzewski said. "This was the toughest and the best."
Toughest? For sure. A classic. That, too. And it's not too much to say that 29 guys brought some much-needed honor to college basketball, dispelling the notion that real student-athletes can't play ball.
But the respect those 40 minutes should bestow was lost on Gordon Hayward. By now, he was standing by the Butler bench, staring in disbelief at the rim. The half-court shot was an attempted miracle. But it was Hayward's second chance to clinch the championship in the final seconds.
Just moments before, with the score 60-59, he took the inbounds pass from burly Matt Howard and drove right on Duke's Kyle Singler. He stopped hard and put up a fade-away that hit hard against the back iron, bounding into the arms of Brian Zoubek.
Hayward, the best athlete on the court, had failed. More than that, those shots -- the fade-away in particular -- violated his most sacred expectations. He had imagined it many times as a kid back home, just 18 miles from the arena, in the suburb of Brownsburg, Ind.
"I always dreamed that I would be here someday," he said the other day. "When you practice in your backyard, you see yourself winning the game from the free-throw line or with a last second shot. ...
"I always believed in myself."
And now, a college sophomore was left to contemplate that fractured belief. I guess this is what passes for a life lesson: watching the kids from Duke in their glory. It's been great, kid. Now welcome to the real world.
It's worth mentioning here that Duke -- this crew especially -- is the most undeservedly disliked outfit in college basketball, maybe any sport. You probably won't see a team like this again, with a starting five of three seniors and two juniors.
Still, going into this tournament, the class of '10 was regarded as a disappointment. As freshmen, they lost in the opening round to Virginia Commonwealth. As sophomores, they were humiliated -- "out-toughed," as Zoubek put it -- by West Virginia in the second round. Last year, Villanova beat them by 24.
"To come in and get knocked out of this tournament in our first game and to have to, you know live with that ... it's tough to put words to," said Lance Thomas, the senior forward who makes defense his specialty.
"I don't think our seniors could have predicted this, anywhere near this kind of success," Zoubek said.
Least of all Zoubek, the 7-foot-1 center who spent a good portion of his college career nursing injuries to his lower extremities. "It's really hard to imagine being in this position when you spend two summers on crutches," he said.
For years, Zoubek had heard himself referred to as a bust. But early this morning, a reporter's question about his "up-and-down career" caused Krzyzewski to part with normal interview podium protocol.
"He hasn't had an up-and-down career," interrupted the coach. "... he's had a broken foot twice."
Duke's big three -- the scoring trio of Scheyer, Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith -- is well-known. But Krzyzewski singled out Zoubek -- the erstwhile bust -- as the player "who really elevated our team over these last six weeks, seven weeks, to where we would have a chance to play and win a national championship."
Zoubek finished the night with eight points, 10 rebounds (four off the offensive glass) and two blocks. He played the last nine minutes with four fouls. More than the numbers, though, he gave Duke the interior toughness it had lacked for three-plus seasons. The last shot might have been Hayward's. But the last rebound was Zoubek's.
With four titles, Krzyzewski ties Adolph Rupp and surpasses his mentor, Bobby Knight, who has three. Four titles are twice what any active coach now has. So hate Duke if you must, just understand that in 30 years Krzyzewski has taken his team to 11 Final Fours. He has never embarrassed himself or his university. He has never had to go to the pros to juice his ego or his bank balance. It's a good thing he turned down the Nets yet again on Monday morning.
In the meantime, Butler can take comfort in his admiration. "Butler will no longer be what it was, which was pretty darn good," Krzyzewski said. "Everything that's good about Butler ... will now have a chance to be seen."
Mostly, what you saw of Butler in this tournament was defense. The other day, I wrote that Brad Stevens' players weren't in Duke's league. Let this stand as my apology. They played better perimeter defense, against a great perimeter team, than I'd ever seen. They made Duke go deep into the shot clock. They made the big three look tentative, with Nolan Smith pounding his dribble as the seconds expired.
Then, with five minutes left, Hayward hit a pair of free throws that brought Butler within a point. The crowd -- more than 71,000 -- stood and cheered. Quite suddenly, it felt like Duke was a long way from home. It felt like a Colts game.
You believed until you saw Hayward staring in disbelief at the rim.
So much for the Hoosiers scenario. You won't see another team like this one from Duke -- unless the sophomores who arrived with Gordon Hayward stay until their senior season.