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Magical game comes down to last shot and Duke earns greatness

INDIANAPOLIS -- The ball is in the air. And because the ball is in the air, anything is possible. Miracle? Heartbreak? Pandemonium? Silence? Yes. Anything. That's the beauty of a magical game like this, and also the pain. The basketball is in the air. If it misses, Duke wins one of the greatest championship games ever. And if it goes in (and it looks like it is going in), Butler wins the greatest game that has ever been played.

The basketball is in the air, a 45-foot shot that looks like it is going in, and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski knows that if it goes in, the right team won. And he also knows that if it misses, the right team won, too. This is that kind of game. Both teams have played impossibly hard. Every player defended with every ounce of strength they had. Every player made a winning play -- something, a rebound, a block, a devastating pick, a tough foul, a big shot, a good pass, a hard drive to the basket -- that added a line or shade to this masterpiece. Duke wore white, and Butler wore dark blue (the opposite of the image they came into this game with), but they played so much the same -- the same energy, the same violence, the same togetherness, the same purpose -- that at some point they just seemed to mix together into this wonderful blend of gray.

And now it comes to this -- a ball in the air and the quirks of gravity and chance and the bounce. Duke could have pulled away. Several times it looked like Duke would pull away -- the Blue Devils had a four-point lead, a five-point lead, and they had the ball, and it just felt like one more basket, one more three-pointer would slay Butler once and for all. But Duke could not make the shot. Not on this crazy night.

Then again, a couple of times it looked like Butler had the magic, that beautiful magic that can happen when five players defend like one and everybody on the team believes in the absurd. With six seconds left, Butler star Gordon Hayward drove to the baseline, and, while fading out of bounds, shot a high-arching 15-footer that felt good leaving his hands, looked good falling toward to the basket, and would have given Butler the lead and perhaps the title. The shot, though, was a touch long and the ball bounced out.

And now, the buzzer sounds, the crowd is standing, America is watching, and the basketball is in the air -- Hayward's not-quite desperation 45-foot shot that will decide this game is in the air.

"It had a chance," Butler coach Brad Stevens would say.

"It looked good," Duke's Kyle Singler would say.

"I was just praying it would not go in," Duke's Nolan Smith would say.

"I thought it was going in," Butler's Matt Howard would say.

But you already know. The basketball is not in the air. The basketball hits the backboard a touch hard. The basketball hits the front rim. And the basketball falls away. It could have fallen. It did not fall. And Duke wins the national championship.

"I still can't believe we won," Krzyzewski said after it ended, and his voice sounded hoarse, and he had been crying. Four Duke championships -- this was easily the most emotional Krzyzewski had ever looked. He stared out.

"I don't think we were lucky," he said. "Because we earned it. But there is some ..."

He paused. There is some ... some what?

"But there is some ... yeah," he said.

*****

Some ... yeah. What a game. What a night. Everybody knows the amazing Butler story, but the truth is that there was a Duke story, too. Nobody thought this was a great Duke team. Seven times in 24 years, Krzyzewski had coached a Duke team into the national championship game, a staggering achievement, but each of those teams had that certain Duke aura. Those were terrific teams, and they were expected to be terrific teams, and they had All-Americas, and, well, this team was different. This team had very good players, of course. But there were no first-team All-American. There was no Grant Hill here, no Christian Laettner, no Jay Williams or Shane Battier. The core of this team got drilled in the Sweet 16 of the tournament last year by Villanova, and the bulk of this team lost three of its first seven conference games. They were good all year. But they just seemed vulnerable.

Krzyzewski felt it, too. He would tell them: You are a good team. That's all. He did not want them to get comfortable. He did not think they could afford to feel too good about themselves. After a while, well, they played so hard, and they were so close, and they came together, he would tell them: "You are a very good team." That's as far as he could go. The Blue Devils went into the NCAA tournament as pretty clearly the last No. 1 seed -- "good but not great" was their tag. They defended. They could make three-pointers. They had a lot of size inside. They played as a team. But, people said, this still was not DUKE, all capital letters, the teams that had won so much and won so thoroughly that the only reaction for much of America was to despise them for being so good.

These Blue Devils won tournament games. They rolled past Cal. They streaked past Purdue in the second half. No, it wasn't always art. The Baylor game, especially, was often agonizing. But they won. They rained three-pointers on West Virginia. Krzyzewski told his team then that they were a good team with great character.

Finally, Monday night, Duke faced Butler, Duke faced America's story, Duke faced a dome filled with Hoosiers fans. The Blue Devils mainly faced a Butler defense that is so quietly suffocating that people kept missing the point, even though the Bulldogs had not allowed a team even 60 points the entire tournament. They also faced a stunning Butler confidence -- "These guys didn't come in here thinking they were just gonna roll over," Stevens said after the game.

No. The Butler players, quite apparently, kept thinking they were going to win, even as the evidence piled against them. In the second half, Duke led by four and Singler, the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player, had an open shot, and if that shot went in ... but it didn't. Butler stayed close. The game stayed close.

Then Duke led by five, and Nolan Smith had an open jumper, and if that went in ... but it didn't. Duke still led by five, and Jon Scheyer had an open three-pointer, and if that went in ... but it didn't. Duke had one more five-point lead, this time with three minutes left, and this time it looked like Duke would put it away for sure ... but Singler turned the ball over.

Maybe it was Indiana voodoo. Maybe it was destiny. Or maybe Duke players, like every other team that played Butler, found themselves running from ghosts and ducking away from shadows because that's the sort of defense Butler plays. But here's the thing: Duke plays defense like that, too ... shoot, Krzyzewski and Duke practically INVENTED defense like that. And so while Butler would not crumble, Butler also could not quite come back. Butler's terrific Gordon Hayward made only 2 of 11 shots. Butler's terrific Shelvin Mack made only 5 of 14. They were dodging ghosts and shadows, too. This was a game for survivors.

And that's how it came down to that last, desperate heave. Duke's Brian Zoubek stood at the free-throw line with Duke up one. There were 3.2 seconds left. Zoubek made the first free throw. And then, using a herky-jerky motion, he purposely missed the second. Krzyzewski had decided that his team's best shot was to get the clocking going (Butler had no timeouts) and force Butler into some sort of desperate and hopeless heave toward the basket.

Only, Butler had one more bit of sorcery left. Instead of panicking, Hayward grabbed the rebound and dribbled quickly to his right. And instead of panicking, Butler's Howard set a crushing pick on Singler, a certain foul except no referee is calling a foul there. That pick cleared Hayward, left him alone to shoot the final shot. It was a long shot, but it was open. The basketball was in the air. And, it just missed.

"What the hell," Krzyzewski said with a sigh, "it worked." He looked happy and dazed and proud and like he was not entirely sure what had happened. This victory takes his already legendary career one more step up -- now he has four championships, more than his mentor Bob Knight and as many as Kentucky icon Adolph Rupp. Krzyzewski did not want to talk about all that ... he said reminiscing about his own achievements is for another time, once he's retired, once he can look back.

What Krzyzewski did want to talk about is that, after the game, he went into the locker room and looked hard at the players on his team. There was all sorts of emotion. They all realized that they just had won one of the great games ever. They all realized that for the rest of their lives they would be connected by this game and this championship and that final heave that did not go in. And, as everyone quieted down, Krzyzewski said to them in his craggy voice the words he had been waiting all year to say.

He said: "You are a great team."

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