Minute by minute, second by second, the NCAA title game got better and better.
Then came the final four seconds — four ticks of the clock that produced one of the most dramatic finishes to one of the most memorable games college basketball has ever seen.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to be in eight national championship games, and this was a classic,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who has won four of those games. “This was the toughest and the best one.”
Butler had two chances to win it Monday night — one on a 15-foot fadeaway, another on a desperation halfcourt shot at the buzzer.
Both shots clanked cruelly off the rim. Near misses. Duke held off the upstart Bulldogs 61-59, ending the small school’s search for the perfect, Hollywood ending.
And though the sad, tired looks on the faces of the Butler players may not have told the story, when people look back on this magical night in sports — in a day, a year, a decade or more — it will be hard to say there really was a loser.
“We came up one possession short in a game with about 145 possessions,” said Butler’s 33-yearold coach, Brad Stevens. “It’s hard to stomach when you’re on the wrong end of that.”
Even before the game, there were signs that this could be a good one. The storylines were right.
There was Butler, enrollment 4,200, the team that practices at the fieldhouse where “Hoosiers” was shot. The Bulldogs, playing six miles from campus, were on the verge of creating a sequel to the movie, based on real life, in which the tiny Indiana school goes against the big boys and comes out a winner.
There was Duke, the uber-successful team that much of America loves to hate — good this year, but not overwhelming, a team that made it every bit as far on grit as it did on raw talent.
For 39 minutes, 56 seconds, nobody backed down. There were seven ties, 15 lead changes and, amazingly, neither team built a lead of more than six.
Every possession was a struggle. Every point came at a price.
Butler guards Ronald Nored and Willie Veasley made life hell on Duke’s outside players, Jon Scheyer and Nolan Smith. But Scheyer and Smith worked off picks, worked to get open, and got their shots and their points.
There was 3:16 left when Smith made two free throws to give Duke a 60-55 lead, which on this night, passed for a Grand Canyon-sized gap.Th
e thought that Butler would pack it in, though — no way.
Anybody who knew anything about the country’s most tenacious team — trying to become the smallest school to win the title since the tournament was expanded to 65 teams in 1985 — knew there was no quit in the Bulldogs.
The teams traded steals and missed shots before Butler’s Gordon Hayward found teammate Matt Howard on a perfect bounce pass for a layup. 60-57.
Smith missed a shot on Duke’s next possession.
Butler came down and Shelvin Mack missed a 3-pointer that would have tied the game, but Howard got the rebound and the put-back for another layup. 60-59.
Duke’s Kyle Singler barely grazed the rim on the next possession and Butler got the rebound and worked the clock down to 13.6 seconds, then called a timeout.
Butler’s best chance at winning came on a play that’s as simple as they come: Give the ball to your best player, Hayward, and let him create. He dribbled from the top of the key, spun and worked his way to the right baseline. He went up for a jumper, but with a hand in his face, he bent backward — off balance just enough to alter the shot.
It hit hard off the far side of the rim.
Duke’s center, 7-foot-1 Brian Zoubek, got the rebound and Butler fouled with 3.6 seconds left.
Krzyzewski told Zoubek make the first free throw and miss the second on purpose. 61-59.
Hayward rebounded the intentional miss, turned, dribbled four times, took a step (or two) and launched the ball from halfcourt, near the right sideline.
The buzzer sounded. The shot looked on line.
It hit the top of the square on the backboard. Then, it hit the inside of the front of the rim.
If the trajectory is an inch diff erent, if the shot is launched from an inch one way or another, if fate lets that ball go in, Butler wins by one.
If the Bulldogs get that bounce, every magical moment ever seen in college basketball — Keith Smart’s baseline jumper, Jim Valvano running around looking for someone to hug, Chris Webber’s infamous timeout — becomes nothing more than a distant second-best.
But instead of an unthinkable finish to a storybook season for Butler, the ball bounced out.
Duke got its name on the trophy and will be remembered as the team that held on in one of the most hairraising finishes the sport has ever seen.
“You get pretty excited about an ending that comes down when the ball is in the air,” Stevens said.
He wasn’t the only one.