The game that will be remembered as one of the best finals of all time, ending one of the more stunning runs in college basketball history, came down to a half-court heave that just about changed history.
The shot. The damn shot. THE SHOT ALMOST MADE IT. You saw it but you didn't see it. You had to be here to fully appreciate how close the conversation about this game came to being a totally different one.
"I still can't believe we won," said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.
Neither can Butler. Neither can much of America, which was probably rooting against Duke.
The damn shot ... it came this close to altering Krzyzewski's career arc, changing Butler's, changing everything. After the game there was more media interested in The Butler Bounce than there was in Duke winning.
"I'm stunned, standing here," said Butler guard Ronald Nored, "because I thought it was going in."
"I thought it was in," said Butler's Shelvin Mack. "I thought we had it. I thought we won it."
|Butler vs. Duke|
Recap: Duke 61, Butler 59
After Hayward's attempt the air came out of 70,000 people inside the arena like someone had kneed them in the ribs. Duke fans and Butler fans were, initially, equally shocked. For several seconds after the game, it was eerily quiet.
"This is a game where things were not by the book," Krzyzewski said.
It was by the seat of the pants.
This is how history was almost made.
The shot actually begins a few seconds earlier. Butler erased Duke's five-point lead, cutting it to one. Hayward, at the top of the key, drifted right following a vicious pick by Matt Howard on Kyle Singler. Hayward's shot was from 15 feet and he tried it while fading back. It missed.
"That's the shot I expected to make," Hayward said.
Singler watched that part of the play from the ground, twisting and contorting his body to see what happened. As he lay there he found himself wishing it didn't go in. He got his wish.
Duke's Brian Zoubek grabbed the rebound, was fouled, made the first free throw and intentionally missed the second. Hayward got the ball and streaked toward half court.
The shot was launched from 50 feet, hit the backboard and then bounced off the rim. The Butler Bounce was born.
" ... I bodied up Hayward, and by the time Hayward put the ball on the ground, it was 1.2, 1.8 seconds left," Zoubek said. "They got off a bad shot, not a good one. It almost went in. Should have gone in, though."
That's a Duke player saying that.
|Brad Stevens' Bulldogs fall short in the end but their effort should be remembered. (Getty Images)|
The irony is Hayward said in practice he's made that shot a bunch of times. He almost did it again.
"I thought Gordon's shot had a chance," said Butler coach Brad Stevens. "The first one looked good the whole way. The last one had a chance. Anytime you have a player of Gordon's caliber and he's got the ball in his hands and lets it fly on the last attempt, you feel like you got a chance to win."
Duke got its title but the Bulldogs got something much bigger. They earned the respect of every non-Duke fan in the country.
Duke won but the Blue Devils were almost undone by that bounce.
It was striking afterward in speaking to the Butler players. They were angrier (stunned at the least) than they were sad. Most people didn't give Butler a chance but from the very start of the game it was clear that Duke was in for a great fight.
"We didn't come here to get second place," Hayward said.
In many ways, Stevens out-coached Krzyzewski. This game, based on talent alone, shouldn't have been close. It was because Butler didn't care about pedigree or titles accumulated.
"What America witnessed was a team that plays hard and plays smart," Nored said. "I'm not taking anything away from Duke but we were right there. We weren't intimidated."
The Butler Bounce almost changed everything. One shot.