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Duke victory over Butler a great end to a terrific NCAA Tournament

INDIANAPOLIS — It took three weeks. It took 64 games. It took every single second, and every last shot.

And that is how the greatest NCAA Tournament in memory finally ended Monday night. With a ball sailing through the air from near midcourt, and with history riding on its final destination.

"I just thought, 'Please, don't,' " Duke guard Nolan Smith said. "It looked good. I was just praying it didn't go in."

In the end, the shot could not have come any closer.

And, I suppose, the same will always be said about Butler's greatest season.

The box scores will say Duke won the national championship 61-59 against Butler. The record books will say coach Mike Krzyzewski became just the third man in history to win at least four titles.

But our memories will tell us what really happened. Our hearts will tell us what was truly won and lost.

For this game was everything a college sporting event should be. It was a program with a rich history and a richer budget going down to the final second against a program with little pedigree and even less fanfare.

It was a coach who began his career in 1976 against a coach who was born in 1976. It was Krzyzewski kissing the net as he cut it down from the hoop, and it was Butler coach Brad Stevens hugging his players as they walked away from their dreams.

This could have been a new benchmark for a new generation. This could have been Loyola or Texas Western in the 1960s. It could have been North Carolina State or Villanova in the '80s. It could have been the most unlikely champion college basketball had seen in 20 years, and probably longer.

Instead, it will be the greatest upset that never happened.

"I don't think a loss ever hurt this bad before," said Butler guard Shawn Vanzant of Tampa. "We were right there."

There was little to suggest Butler might be the better team Monday night. Duke had better shooters. Duke had much better size. Duke had the Hall of Fame coach and the deeper bench.

And still Butler refused to go away.

The teams traded the lead 15 times. The most either team led by was six points, and that lasted only a handful of minutes.

And when it came down to the final seconds, Butler had two chances for victory. The Bulldogs had stopped Duke on consecutive possessions in the final two minutes to cut the score from 60-55 to 60-59. Gordon Hayward had one shot at the victory, but his fadeaway jumper went off the rim.

After Duke center Brian Zoubek made one free throw, Hayward got another chance off a rebound with 3.6 seconds remaining. He dribbled just past halfcourt and then let the ball fly with a lifetime's worth of dreams hanging in the balance.

The ball hit the backboard and then bounced off the front of the rim before falling to the ground and ending a season.

"I was standing at halfcourt and I thought it was going in," Butler forward Matt Howard said. "That makes it even a little more devastating. You think that shot is going, and then it rims out like it did."

And so, in the end, the small private school won.

The one with the polite, unassuming players and the 92 percent graduation rate. The one where players aren't skipping off to the NBA after one season, and the one where the coach is forever turning down more lucrative jobs.

So why are you frowning this morning?

I know the world loves its underdogs, and we all revel in an NCAA Tournament Cinderella.

And, sure, had Butler finished off the upset, it would have been part of highlight tapes forever.

Yes, Butler is everything we perceive to be good about college sports.

But, in case you have forgotten, so is Duke. Somehow that has been forgotten over the years.

A generation ago, we seemed to understand this. Back then, Duke was the little-team-that-could going up against big-and-bad UNLV. Duke had the clean cut coach and players who got degrees. UNLV had the renegade coach and players briefly passing through school.

Yet, somewhere along the line, it seemed Duke turned into everyone's back-up villains.

And that's too bad.

For even if Duke spends more money than any program in the nation, and even if Krzyzewski has grown to be as arrogant as any coach in the land, the Blue Devils still represent all that is right about college athletics.

"Everybody want to be like Duke. Just the way they carry themselves," Stevens said. "Year in and year out, you know they're going to be a cohesive unit. Coach Krzyzewski has set the standard for the way teams are built."

And now he has one more title to hold up his legend.

And the rest of us have one incredible memory to hang on to.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Duke victory over Butler a great end to a terrific NCAA Tournament 04/06/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 6, 2010 1:49am]
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