INDIANAPOLIS — Lance Thomas’s stomach dropped. Brian Zoubek said it was like watching a slow-motion movie. Nolan Smith was so afraid of what might happen that he turned his back and looked away from the most important shot of his career. And one thought went through the minds of Duke fans everywhere: That shot looks good.
But when Butler forward Gordon Hayward’s halfcourt heave bounced off the backboard, hung agonizingly on the rim for a moment and finally fell to the floor, the Blue Devils could exhale. Duke is back, if it was ever gone in the first place.
This championship—the fourth in Duke Basketball history—is different. There was no revenge factor in the Final Four, as there was in 1991. There was no miracle jumper that saved the season, à la Christian Laettner in 1992. And there is no surplus of NBA talent, like in 2001. This team had only grit and determination, consistency and toughness. Head coach Mike Krzyzewski has called this team “special” over and over, but it isn’t special because of how good Duke always was. It is special because of how good this crop of Blue Devils became over the course of four long, often disappointing seasons.
The disappointment is gone, and for Zoubek, Thomas and Jon Scheyer, it is gone forever. Duke is a national champion again—barely. Thomas said that Duke “maxed out its season,” and the Blue Devils’ absolute max almost wasn’t enough.
Because while Duke’s run through this wild NCAA Tournament will always be remembered, the Bulldogs’ own run will never be forgotten, either. Butler proved Monday night that it merited its place in the national championship game. The Bulldogs were no fluke, and several times, they were inches away from taking the lead the Blue Devils held onto for most of the night. In the end, Duke hung on, 61-59, to send many of the 70,938 fans in Lucas Oil Stadium home in tears. Nobody in the building could relate to that feeling better than Duke’s players themselves.
“What’s going on in the Butler locker room… this group of guys can understand,” Krzyzewski said. “As good as the Butler story is and was and will be, [Duke’s] story is pretty good, too.”
“What an ordeal,” said Duke University president Richard Brodhead, a man known more for his literary prowess than his love of basketball. “We got off to that early lead, but there was nothing easy. Not one easy basket in the whole game. In a way, before the game, people were saying this was going to be such a blowout. Well, that’s not true, because [Butler had] beaten a lot of really good teams. But they didn’t beat us, because we were tougher.”
It took every ounce of toughness the Blue Devils could muster to finally silence the Bulldogs, even after Duke opened up a five-point lead with three minutes to go that seemed insurmountable, given how precious each point was in this tooth-and-nail contest. With the Blue Devils balancing a one-point lead at 56-55 with 5:07 to go, Kyle Singler came around a set of double screens not once but twice before catching the ball on the wing and draining a difficult jump shot. Nolan Smith made two free throws on the next possession, but as it had all night, Butler fought back.
After two layups by Bulldog forward Matt Howard, Butler was back within one, and following a stunning Singler airball from the elbow, Hayward had a chance to give the Bulldogs the lead with seven ticks left. But his high-arcing fadeaway jumper clanged off the rim into Zoubek’s waiting arms. Seconds later, the Blue Devils were champions, even if they were made to sweat for it.
When asked if he thought the desperation heave at the buzzer was on line, Hayward said simply, “Not as much as the first one. The first one… I thought it was in.”
But fortunately for Duke fans, both of Hayward’s near-makes were near-misses, and the Blue Devils proved the doubters wrong. It didn’t matter who Duke had to beat to get to Indianapolis, or what happened in the NCAA Tournament in the previous three seasons. In the end, a lot of the things Duke was criticized for all year didn’t matter.
What mattered was the attitude and the desire this team showed in regrouping after a thrashing at Georgetown Jan. 30 to lose just one more time all season. What mattered was the ability to overcome bad shooting nights by its best players—against Baylor it was Kyle Singler, and against Butler it was Nolan Smith. And what most mattered was the way the Blue Devils of 2009-2010—really, the Blue Devils of 2006-2010—peaked April 5 in Indianapolis.
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After the final buzzer had sounded, as Duke’s players wandered from one basket to the other and to the stage where their national championship trophy was presented, freshmen Andre Dawkins and Mason Plumlee—both important role players, but minimal contributors Monday night—turned to a Duke official and asked a simple question.
“When do we get to go to the White House?”
That honor will come in a few months, but this team won’t have to wait until that photo op with the president for its crown. The Duke Blue Devils are national champions.