It was nearly the greatest ...
INDIANAPOLIS -- You thought it was going in, didn't you?
I did. From my angle on press row, I thought when Butler's Gordon Hayward rushed up the right sideline with the ball, and teammate Matt Howard leveled Duke's Kyle Singler with a crushing blind-side screen, and Hayward suddenly was clear at midcourt and went off his left foot and extended his right arm and sent that prayer arcing through the Lucas Oil Stadium air toward the hoop ...
... I thought it was in.
It was almost the exact same press-row angle I had 18 years ago, behind Christian Laettner, when he hit the most famous shot in NCAA tournament history. Knew that one was good when he shot it.
Thought this one was, too. Thought Laettner's shot had just been trumped. Thought this was "Hoosiers" on screenplay steroids.
I thought that shot was going in for every small school out there that never had a chance to get here. I thought we had attained basketball nirvana -- the greatest game-winning shot in basketball history to climax the greatest story in basketball history. And, what the heck, give us the greatest ending in athletic history.
I thought it was in. And from his vantage point on the floor, Singler feared it was in, too.
"It looked good," Singler said. "It was just one of those things where you're wishing, hoping, it doesn't go in."
Singler wished and hoped. Hayward wished and hoped in the opposite direction. Most of the human race sided with Hayward.
"There was no doubt that I thought that ball was going to drop," Butler guard Ronald Nored said. "I was just sitting down waiting for it to go in."
As the ball descended with stunning accuracy, it looked like it might go glass-net-floor.
And then it missed. Glass-rim-floor. No soft, fairy-tale landing in the nylon.
Reality wins. Duke wins, 61-59.
But Butler wins, too. And the maligned sport of college basketball, a greasy enterprise in recent times, wins a renewed level of nobility. And every small school wins the license to dream Butler dreams.
An incredible NCAA tournament ends on a shot that could have made this game the greatest ever, but instead ends as a mere epic.
"I've been fortunate enough to be in eight national championship games, and this was a classic," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said, gracious as always in victory. "This was the toughest and the best one. My congratulations and empathy are with the Butler team, who played winning basketball. It was a game we won, but they didn't lose.
"I think it will become an historic game, a benchmark game."
On ESPN Classic
ESPN Classic will rebroadcast the 2010 men's national championship game between Butler and Duke as its Instant Classic on Tuesday, April 6, at 5:30 ET.
It's a game we'll talk about until we're done talking about basketball. We'll remember the sustained drama, as 70,930 fans shared the same tension-drenched air for more than two exhausting hours. We'll marvel at the fact that the largest lead of the night was six points. And that it was a one-possession game for 31 of the 40 minutes. And that both teams attacked each other with a beautiful savagery.
"It was the toughest game we played all year," Duke's Jon Scheyer said. "I can't imagine what those guys are feeling like. They gave everything they had, just like we did."
We'll talk about a different Duke team than Krzyzewski's three other champions at Duke -- less glamorous, more gritty. Never once all season did Krzyzewski call this team great -- until the postgame locker room, when the Blue Devils had the championship nets to prove it.
But even more than the winners, we'll talk about the losers. Because it was Butler that elevated this story to something unique, something special. It was Butler that lived up to a moment far beyond the reach of most schools of its ilk -- a 4,200-student university right here in Indianapolis, with scant tradition, a modest budget and mid-major conference affiliation.
Duke won the game. But Butler, the distinct underdog in every measurable manner, turned what some thought would be a mismatch into a near-miracle.
The Bulldogs spent much of the second half on the ropes -- seemingly one Blue Devils back-breaking basket from losing touch. But their brilliant half-court defense -- blur-quick hands, fast feet, stout bodies, near-perfect communication and rotations -- would not relent. Befitting a team that has not lost since December, they would not go easily.
Down 47-43, Butler did what Butler does. It got a stop.
Down 51-47, Butler got a stop.
Down 56-51, Butler got two stops.
Down 60-55, Butler got a stop.
And then another, at 60-57. And finally, with the deficit down to a single point and less than 40 seconds on the clock, Singler flashed across the lane for a very open jumper at the elbow, which he very shockingly missed by a mile. Barely grazed the rim.
After the umpteenth all-out scrum for the rebound went out of bounds off Duke center Brian Zoubek's large foot with 33.7 seconds left, Butler had its mind-blowing chance at immortality.
After consecutive timeouts with 13.6 seconds left, Butler put the game in Hayward's hands. He's been the Bulldogs' best player all season, and this was his time.
Hayward tried to go left and was walled off. With the ball-handling skills of a guard, the 6-foot-9 Hayward went back to his right. The 7-1 Zoubek stepped forward to impede his path. Hayward dribbled to the baseline, faded back and lofted the shot over Zoubek's long arm.
"Felt good," Hayward said. "Looked good. Just wasn't there."
The shot caromed off the far side of the rim and into the hands of Zoubek. Butler lunged to foul him with 3.6 seconds left. Zoubek, a senior whose career was stunted for years by injuries, went to the line and made the first.
And then Krzyzewski made his only bad decision of an expertly coached game.
He instructed Zoubek to intentionally miss the second free throw -- exposing his team to the prospect of sudden death on a last shot, instead of trying to secure nothing worse than a tie.
Asked if he was surprised by that decision, Butler coach Brad Stevens said, "A little bit."
The rest of us: a lot.
And when Hayward corralled that intentional miss and peeled out of the lane to the right sideline, and Howard dropped Singler like a stone, there was one last chance for the ending beyond anything we've ever seen.
"Matt did a great job of getting me an open look," Hayward said. "I just missed it."
Asked whether the glorious run to this point will outlive the pain of defeat, Hayward said no.
"For me [the strongest memory] is going to be the loss," Hayward said. "Hate losing."
Stevens' description of his players: "They're crushed. I mean, this matters."
It does matter. But it also matters in the grander scheme, and from that standpoint, this was a victory.
One day, we may look back at this as the game that ushered in a new powerhouse in Butler. But not just that -- it may usher in a new era of college basketball.
An era where the Butlers of the world can push the Dukes of the world to the absolute brink, for the highest stakes. An era where excellent coaching and smart recruiting can take midlevel programs further than they've ever been. An era where, as Stevens said, "anything can happen in a basketball game."
The most outlandish of all possibilities almost happened here Monday night. Almost.
But as good as it looked, the last shot didn't go in.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.