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So Close! Butler Loses Championship to Duke in Heartbreaking Fashion

Nick PoustCorrespondent IIApril 6, 2010

INDIANAPOLIS - APRIL 05:  Brian Zoubek #55 of the Duke Blue Devils reaches for a rebound against Avery Jukes #24 (C) and Shawn Vanzant #2 of the Butler Bulldogs during the 2010 NCAA Division I Men's Basketball National Championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium on April 5, 2010 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Duke won 61-59.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Every expert on ESPN picked Duke.

Every one of them was quoted as saying something to the effect of “For Butler to stay close…” The underdog playing at home, the Bulldogs of Butler, had more than just the outside chance they were given, and they proved it.

They matched Duke nearly point for point, staying close with physical defense and timely shot-making. The championship game was one for the ages. It was epic; a battle that was more than edge-of-your seat thrilling.

Butler used the long-ball early to hang with Duke, and even while getting sparse production from the last two Horizon League players of the year, Matt Howard and Gordon Hayward, they gritted it out to keep the deficit slim.

The Blue Devils defense was tight, so it hurt considerably when the Bulldogs missed inside shot after inside shot.

It seemed the lack of execution would bite them quickly, given Duke’s offensive arsenal, but no such thing took place. They fought and fought, and fought some more, proving they were not deserving of the underdog label.

The Bulldogs were within one at the break behind the play of power forward Avery Jukes. He had 11 points in the previous eight games and came in averaging three points on the season. Jukes scored 10 of their last 12 points to help them out of a six-point hole.

The closeness continued in the second half and Howard and Hayward started to heat up for Butler. The duo scored 18 of their 27 points, but most came from the free-throw line, meaning Duke’s defense would not allow many field goals.

The matchup between two very similar teams was a grueling one. Both played incredible defense, but the Blue Devils’ particularly stood out.

If the Bulldogs scored, it was a hard-earned two points. Hayward and Howard were swarmed; a watchful eye was on all five Butler players, both inside and outside, at all times.

On the other end, Duke had a few easy baskets, mainly attributed to the offensive rebounding of center Brian Zoubek. Still, the Bulldogs matched the Blue Devils, and the game remained within two points for the remainder.

What a finish it was. Butler was behind by five at the two-minute mark, 60-55, and milked some clock on their ensuing possession. They were rewarded for their patience, as a nice feed by Hayward set up a layup by Howard.

Their defense did the job, forcing a heavily contested missed layup by Nolan Smith. A quick three-pointer by Shelvin Mack in transition missed, but Howard was there to fend off Zoubek and clean the boards.

After once again staying poised, the Bulldogs methodical offense paid dividends, as this time Mack found Howard for the layup, trimming the deficit to one, 60-59, with 54 seconds remaining.

Duke forward Kyle Singler created some space in the middle of the lane and attempted a fall-away 10-footer with 38 ticks on the clock, but the shot was short and fell into the hands of a leaping Ronald Nored.

Butler frantically passed the ball around before calling a timeout with 13 seconds remaining. They would have the chance to win what was already one of the best championship games in NCAA history. The ball was in the right player’s hands to complete their unbelievable tournament run: Hayward.

Their star dribbled through traffic, matriculated through the lane, and did his best to create space for a potential go-ahead dagger.

He found himself on the left baseline and, falling away as to try to evade the outstretched hand of Zoubek, followed through in a mid-range jumper that looked good until it fell off the rim and into the arms of Zoubek.

The center was immediately fouled with three seconds remaining. He made the first, stretching the Blue Devils lead to two, but missed the second. Hayward grabbed the rebound and rushed upcourt.

Singler was trailing, but not for long, as Howard laid a devastating pick on the Oregon-native. The clock neared a second to play when Hayward lunged off one foot at the three-point line. There was an anxious silence as the ball traveled towards the hoop.

With every revolution, the more I thought ‘this may have a chance!’ Holding my breath, I watched along with the millions of others rooting for the little school from Indianapolis hoping.

It was dead-on with the basket, hit hard off the backboard, curled around the left side of the rim, and off. That was it. Game over. 

Duke had won the National Championship.

Butler did not lose, however. They just didn’t score more points than the Blue Devils. They gave it their best shot, and what a shot it was, sticking with a team that every basketball fan with sound ethics was rooting for to lose.

Duke won, but Butler, making their first championship game appearance, will never be forgotten.

As a fan, I learned not only about Hayward, Howard, Mack, Nored, Jukes, Shawn Vansant, and 33-year old head coach Brad Stevens, but a little-known team that had everything necessary to compete with the best and win a national title.

Sadly, they just came up two points short.

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