Believe it: Duke’s toughness and poise should be celebrated

When Gordon Hayward let go of his last-second half-court heave as the Lucas Oil Stadium horn blew, I didn’t know what to think. After 40 agonizingly intense minutes of play, Duke’s national title hopes were literally up in the air.

As the ball floated toward the backboard, I found myself in a state of disbelief. Disbelief that this Duke team, which had struggled so much in recent NCAA Tournaments, could be on the cusp of a national title. That a scrappy mid-major like Butler had battled its way to the title game in its own town, about to cap a classic Cinderella storyline. That if Hayward’s despiration attempt found the bottom of the net, the Blue Devils would fall just shy of the crown, that they would come this far, this close to a title, yet come home emptyhanded.

But as we all saw Monday night, that final shot mercifully bounced off the backboard before clanging off the front edge of the rim. Ballgame over. Butler’s hopes for a title dashed. Duke as National Champions.

But even for the most ardent Duke despisers out there, Monday’s game should be celebrated. For anyone lucky enough to be in Indianapolis or watching on TV, Duke’s win was an example of why we love college basketball. Two teams, evenly matched from the opening tip to that final buzzer, produced a true gift of a game for all sports fans and a set of memories and images that won’t be fleeting.

And as so frequently happens when two teams give their all, you learn some things. This game showed us that sometimes the shots that don’t fall are the ones that matter most.

After 39 minutes and 56.4 seconds of spellbinding basketball, Duke and Butler found themselves separated by a mere point. Hayward, Butler’s babyfaced assassin, had just missed a chance to claim the lead. After snaring the ensuing rebound and being almost immediately fouled, Brian Zoubek stood at the line for a pair of shots. After Zoubek sank the first, Mike Krzyzewski made a decision that almost had disastrous consequences. He instructed his center to intentionally miss the second, forcing Butler, with no timeouts, to go the length of the court for a bucket in just less than four seconds.

The logic of the miss was rooted in a decent principle—make it as hard as possible for Butler to get off a high-quality shot attempt. I’d guess that Krzyzewski, as the coach who drew up perhaps the most famous full-court, out-of-bounds play in college hoops history—Christian Laettner’s turnaround miracle in the 1992 tournament—didn’t want to see a similar feat pulled off at his expense. But in any case, the Zoubek miss paid off, the decision validated when Hayward’s heave fell just short.

And perhaps more than anything else, this team showed how to respond after being pushed, how to get up after being knocked down. The Blue Devils’ physicality was outwardly apparent just by eyeballing them. From the bleeding cut Jon Scheyer acquired near the end of his team’s first-round Tournament loss to VCU in 2007 to the scratches that Kyle Singler sustained after diving into press row at the ACC Tournament for a loose ball, these Blue Devils have the battle scars indicative of the physical style of play that elevated them to a national title.

And again on Monday, the Blue Devils came through. Every rebound was fought for. Butler’s shots were consistently contested, with Singler doing yeoman’s work in holding Hayward to a 2-for-11 shooting night. Down to that last play, Singler was doggedly chasing Hayward before he was flattened on a hard screen from Butler center Matt Howard.

Knocked down and laid out on the court, Singler was probably the only person in the building that didn’t have his eyes locked on Hayward’s miracle attempt. But by then, Singler had done all he needed for Duke to come out on top, and to earn Final Four Most Outstanding Player honors.

In the coming weeks, Duke fans will start thinking about the future, considering questions such as whether the draft-eligible tandem of Smith and Singler will opt to leave early for the NBA, or how the Blue Devils are faring on the recruiting trail. But for now, we should keep one thing in perspective. This Duke team has just given us—and all college basketball fans—a tremendous gift. Let’s enjoy it.


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