INDIANAPOLIS -- Brian Zoubek was certain when the ball left Gordon Hayward's hands that Duke had won the national title. Zoubek, Duke's 7-foot-1 center, threw a massive hand in front of Hayward's face as the Butler guard launched a Hail Mary from just inside midcourt late Monday night. Zoubek shouldn't have been so confident.
As the horn echoed through Lucas Oil Stadium, the national title hung in the air. Hayward's shot bounced off the white square on the backboard, then off the front of the rim.
When the ball finally fell to the ground without falling through the net, most of the 70,390 in attendance -- rooting for tiny Butler to shock the basketball world -- groaned. Behind one basket, the Cameron Crazies went wild. On the floor, recovering from a legal, but painful Matt Howard screen that freed Hayward for the final shot, Duke forward Kyle Singler lifted his head and smiled. He would have gotten up, but he was tackled by guard Nolan Smith. As the Blue Devils celebrated the 61-59 win that gave the program its fourth national title, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski emerged from the swirling joy wearing a huge grin. Moments later, Krzyzewski stood on the podium. He appeared to fight back tears.
"This is a group," Krzyzewski said, "that I just love being with every day."
Throughout the NCAA Tournament, Krzyzewski insisted his focus wasn't on a fourth title. It was on the first one for his current players, many of whom had endured one of the more frustrating stretches of Krzyzewski's storied tenure. On Monday, all that frustration melted away as the Blue Devils survived against sentimental favorite Butler, the team from a tiny school 6.1 miles away that captured the hearts of the nation these past three weeks.
"It's not a game that anybody lost," Krzyzewski said. "Both teams are such winners."
On Monday, the margin between victory and defeat was inches. Had Hayward's shot hit the backboard at a slightly different angle, it would have fallen straight through the net. "I thought it was going in," said Butler's Howard, who played despite suffering concussion-like symptoms after hitting his head in the Bulldogs' Saturday win against Michigan State. "That makes it even a little more devastating."
Butler had a chance to hit a game-winner before the buzzer, but Hayward missed a baseline jumper attempted over Zoubek with four seconds remaining. Zoubek grabbed the rebound and was fouled. He made the first free throw but missed the second, setting up Hayward's shot at a miracle.
Had the shot fallen, Hayward would have eclipsed Bobby Plump, the Butler alum whose game-winning shot lifted Milan High to an improbable Indiana state title in 1954 and inspired the 1986 film Hoosiers, the climactic scenes of which were filmed in Hinkle Fieldhouse -- Butler's home gym.
Hayward, a 6-9 sophomore who was the breakout star of this year's tournament, thought he'd launched a miracle. "Felt good," he said. "Looked good. Just wasn't there."
Hayward finished with 12 points and eight rebounds. Singler led Duke with 19 points. Zoubek trumped all rebounders with 10.
This is Duke's first title since 2001. The Blue Devils made 10 Final Fours between 1986 and 2004, but then hit a five-year dry spell after the '04 appearance. That was a source of great consternation on Tobacco Road --especially considering rival North Carolina won national titles in 2005 and 2009 -- but Krzyzewski believed this team had a chance to break the slump.
It's fitting that Zoubek defended both Hayward shots and that the senior grabbed the critical rebound, because Zoubek may have been the player most critical to Duke's ascension. Krzyzewski discovered the ideal lineup before Duke's Feb. 13 win against Maryland when he tabbed Zoubek as the starting center. Using the revamped lineup, the Blue Devils won 15 of their last 16, including 10 consecutive wins to end the season.
Because of Zoubek's prowess on missed Duke shots, Butler coach Brad Stevens said Sunday his team would have to find a way to keep the Blue Devils off the offensive glass. Duke had averaged 14.8 offensive rebounds in its first five tournament games, with those rebounds leading to several second-chance baskets. Butler succeeded, holding the Blue Devils to three offensive rebounds in the first half.
Duke, however, could not keep the Bulldogs off the offensive glass in the first half. Butler grabbed 12 first-half offensive rebounds, resulting in 10 second-chance points. Despite shooting 34.2 percent to Duke's 50 percent, Butler only trailed by one at the half.
The teams stayed tight, with neither team holding more than a six-point lead.
With Duke up 56-53, Ronald Nored started a Butler fast break by stealing a Singler pass. Duke forward Lance Thomas, trying to keep Hayward from scoring an easy layup, then grabbed the Butler guard and tossed him into the basket standard. Officials reviewed the play but did not call an intentional foul, which would have given Butler two free throws and the ball. Hayward made both free throws, and Duke responded with a crucial Singler jumper on its next possession.
Duke led 60-55, but two Howard layups slashed the lead to one. With 13.7 seconds remaining, Butler had the ball and a shot at the national title. But Zoubek defended that shot, rebounded the miss and then defended another shot. It was only after he watched the One Shining Moment montage that he realized how close he was to watching the Bulldogs hoist the trophy.
"One lucky bounce," Zoubek said, "and we might have lost this game."
Krzyzewski was correct, though. No one lost Monday.
"This was a classic," he said. "This was the toughest and the best one."