Had Gordon Hayward’s fadeaway jumper from the right baseline fallen through the net with four seconds left to play in last night’s NCAA championship game—giving Butler a 61-60 lead and leaving Duke in need of a miracle to win—it would have been the perfect Hollywood ending—though perhaps a bit clichéd for cinema—to Butler’s storybook season.
It has been a season that has drawn comparisons to the story of little Milan High School, an underdog team that won the Indiana high school basketball state championship, in the classic movie Hoosiers, which was filmed in Butler’s own Hinkle Fieldhouse.
Had Heyward’s desperation shot from just inside halfcourt moments later fallen—as it almost did—and given the Bulldogs a 62-61 victory as time expired, the Hollywood script would have been sent back for editing to make it more believable.
As it stands, Butler’s incredible season and run through the NCAA Tournament came to a close last night with a 61-59 defeat against a top-seeded team from Duke that many expected to run away with this title game.
The Bulldogs started the season ranked 11th in the nation—a major sign of respect for a mid-major team from the Horizon League. Four losses by mid-December dropped the team down the rankings and off the national radar. But lost in that was a difficult non-conference schedule and marquee wins against eventual NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 teams Ohio State and Xavier.
After losing to UAB in mid-December, however, the Bulldogs did not lose another game until last night. They cruised through their weak conference schedule with a perfect 14-0 record and handled the conference tournament in early March just as easily.
Despite boasting the nation’s longest winning streak of 20 games, Butler entered the NCAA Tournament as a No. 5 seed in the West region and without a lot of respect or national attention for having dominated an unheralded mid-major conference. One would have had to search far and wide for a college basketball analyst or sportswriter that had the Bulldogs advancing past the Sweet 16 in their brackets.
The first week of the tournament Butler did just enough to advance, but didn’t impress anyone in the process.
They trailed No. 12 seed UTEP at half time in the first round before going on a three-point frenzy in the second half that eventually gave them an easy 77-59 victory.
In the second round, the Bulldogs faced an upstart No. 13 seed Murray State squad that had upset Vanderbilt in the first round. Again the Bulldogs had to make up for a half time deficit and held on for victory in the waning moments only when star forward Hayward stole the ball on Murray State’s final possession to secure a 54-52 victory.
Thus, the Bulldogs entered the Sweet 16, seeming lucky to have advanced against lesser ranked opponents and destined to make a prompt exit against the No. 1 seed in the West region, the Syracuse Orange.
But then Butler emerged and became America’s darling for the next two weeks.
The Bulldogs jumped on the Orange early, blew a double-digit second half lead, and eventually emerged victorious 63-59 with a couple of late steals and three-point baskets that turned around a four-point deficit in the game’s final minutes.
Two days later in the school’s first ever Elite Eight game, the Bulldogs revisited the same script and beat No. 2 seed Kansas State by jumping out to an early lead, pushing it to double digits in the second half, only to lose it with under five minutes to play before ultimately emerging victorious 63-56 in the end.
And just like that Butler became the Cinderella team of the 2010 NCAA tournament as they headed to the Final Four in their home city of Indianapolis to play Michigan State in the first national semifinal this past Saturday.
This time the Bulldogs fell behind early and found themselves in trouble even as they took a second half lead because two of the team’s best players, Matt Howard and Shelvin Mack, were shelved on the bench with injuries.
Despite only being able to convert one basket from the field in the final 10 minutes of the game, the Bulldogs came out on top of the No. 5 seed Spartans.
They did so in a large part because the team’s first major NBA prospect in decades, Gordon Hayward, carried Butler’s scoring and rebounding load and sunk a clutch late basket that gave the Bulldogs just enough of a cushion to pull out a 52-50 victory.
That brought the team with little size, little depth, and little national exposure before March all the way to the national championship game against its toughest opponent yet in Duke.
And from the opening tip—which Butler’s 6-foot-8 Matt Howard happened to win over Duke’s 7-foot-1 Brian Zoubek—until almost the final shot, the game did not disappoint and played out just like a Hollywood script.
Just like any classic sports movie, each character or player on the Butler team had his moment on Monday night.
First it was sophomore guard Shelvin Mack, the team’s second leading scorer and a player often overshadowed by Hayward, who took to center stage and kept the Bulldogs afloat in the early going.
While Butler struggled to make easy shots inside, Mack drained two tightly-guarded threes in the opening minutes that allowed the Bulldogs to get their feet under them and stay neck and neck with Duke.
Then it was the little-used 6-foot-1 3-point specialist, sophomore guard Zach Hahn—perhaps the only player on the team with more boyish looks than Hayward—who pulled the trigger on an insanely long three-point shot to supplement Mack’s early scoring on his only shot of the entire game.
Still, the Bulldogs soon found themselves in a 26-20 hole and Duke seemed poised to make a run that could turn the game into the rout that many expected.
That’s when 34-year-old Butler head coach Brad Stevens, taking part in his first Final Four against one of the winningest coaches of all time in his eighth national championship game on the other sideline, called for a timeout.
In an actual movie we would have been privy to whatever Stevens said to his team, but whatever he said worked. The Bulldogs reeled off seven straight points to reclaim the lead, 27-26.
With Howard in foul trouble—a theme of the tournament for Butler—senior Avery Jukes entered the game as his replacement. In his previous eight games combined, Jukes had scored all of 11 points. But playing in his final collegiate game, Jukes racked up 10 points in the first half while draining two 3-pointers that Duke dared him to hit by leaving him wide open beyond the arc.
Even as they struggled with easy inside shots, the Bulldogs headed to the locker room down by just a point, 33-32, thanks to their three-point shooting and the fact that they were out-rebounding the Blue Devils despite being significantly outsized.
The second half of the game continued to be a classic. Every possession seemed critical and every time one team scored the other answered right back. Butler never led by two and Duke never led by more than six in the entire game.
Just as Butler did against Michigan State in the semifinals, the Bulldogs saw their shooting touch desert them in the second half. But this time they had a better answer to stay in the game—their star player, 6-foot-9 sophomore forward Hayward.
Throughout the tournament, everything that Hayward touched seemed to turn to gold, but on this night his jump shot was off and he made only two of 11 attempts from the field.
But like a hero in a sports movie, he found other ways to help his team.
He grabbed a team-high eight rebounds, played all but five seconds of the game, and most importantly, kept Butler alive in the second half by driving to the basket one possession after another and drawing fouls against Duke that sent him to the free throw line. For all of his struggles from the field, Hayward was a perfect 8-for-8 from the charity stripe.
Despite all of Butler’s efforts to keep the game close, it seemed to finally be slipping away from them when Duke senior guard Jon Scheyer was fouled on a two-point make and converted the three-point play from the free-throw line to give Duke a five point lead—its biggest of the second half—with just under four minutes to play.
It was time for one final player to take his role and breathe new life into the Bulldogs. And like any good movie, this one seemed to save its most troubled hero for last.
For as stellar as this tournament has been for Butler, it has been an awful struggle for Howard.
As a freshman, Howard played an integral role in Butler’s second trip in school history to the Sweet 16 and was the Horizon League freshman of the year. Last season as a sophomore, he was named the conference’s most outstanding player.
This year had been more of a struggle for Howard, but he was still a vital component of the team’s 20-game win streak to end the regular season and was Butler’s third leading scorer, averaging just over 11 points per game on the year.
In the NCAA tournament, however, Howard struggled mightily with fouls from the second round on, and it was a good night if he managed to stay out of foul trouble and on the floor for more than 20 minutes. To make matters worse, he suffered a mild concussion in the semifinal against Michigan State and was questionable for Monday night’s championship game.
Cleared to play by doctors, Howard started the game and was a key component of the Bulldogs’ early game plan. He worked hard to get good close looks at the basket and drew fouls on Duke’s big men, but he simply couldn’t get the ball to fall through the net from the field or from the free throw line, where the 80 percent shooter for his career went just 1-for-4
Then Howard’s Achilles’ heel struck again and he committed two fouls that sent him to the bench for nearly the final 12 minutes of the first half. When he came back to start the second half, he quickly committed his third foul, and after a brief rest Stevens took a risk and put him back on the floor only to see him commit his fourth foul almost immediately with still nearly three-quarters of the second half remaining.
At that point with only one more foul before he was disqualified and with his propensity to commit them within seconds of being put on the floor, Howard’s night, much like his tournament, seemed destined to end in disappointment.
With just under eight minutes to play, Stevens inserted Howard back into the game and tried to substitute him in and out of action so that he played on offense but sat on defense where he was more likely to foul. Howard soon rewarded his coach by drawing fouls against Duke on the offensive end and converting on all four of his free-throw attempts.
But it was in the game’s final three minutes with his team trailing by five that Howard finally shone in the tournament. He scored two critical hoops underneath the basket and grabbed a vital offensive rebound. His easy lay-in with under a minute to play cut Duke’s lead to 60-59 and put Butler in a position to win.
With under 35 seconds remaining and the shot clock turned off, Butler had the ball still trailing 60-59, looking for one last hero and one last shot to complete their Hollywood season.
The Bulldogs called timeout after Duke deflected the ball out of bounds with 13 seconds to play. On the in-bounds play Howard lobbed the ball deep into the backcourt to Hayward.
Just like that the script was set. The underdog Bulldogs had the ball in the hands of their best player with the game on the line. In the movie Hoosiers this is where Milan high school’s star, Jimmy Chitwood, drained a game winning shot as time expired to win the Indiana high school basketball championship in Hinkle Fieldhouse,
When Hayward drove to the right baseline, he was met by Duke’s tallest player, Zoubek, and as was only fitting giving the Bulldogs’ lack of size, was forced to loft a fadeaway shot over the opponent’s biggest Goliath, creating an image that seemed to come right off the big screen.
As Hayward’s shot left his hands it looked good. It looked as if it would drop in with four seconds to play and give Butler, in all likelihood, the national championship. But it was just a touch long and the ball rimmed off into the hands of Zoubek, who was promptly fouled with just over three seconds to play.
Zoubek made his first free throw and then missed the second on purpose to force Butler, which had no timeouts remaining, to rebound the ball and travel the length of the court in less than four seconds for a final shot.
It was Hayward who grabbed the rebound and managed to speed all the way to just inside of halfcourt before he launched the game’s final shot just in time.
One might refer to such a shot as a desperation heave, but it was one heck of an attempt with a world of potential in this case.
As the ball left Hayward’s hands and travelled through the air, Zoubek’s agonized expression told the story of just how perfectly poised Hayward’s shot seemed to be to swish through the net. But moments after he had let it go, Hayward’s shot banged off the backboard, grazed the rim and finally fell to the ground.
For a brief moment it seemed that Hayward might have just let go one of the most incredible shots in the history of college basketball and concluded the final scene of one of the greatest stories and games the sport had ever seen.
Instead, Butler and college basketball fans will just have to settle for a beautifully-scripted tale with a bittersweet conclusion.