In the end, Duke simply found a way
INDIANAPOLIS -- The national title game may be remembered for Gordon Hayward's near-miss from midcourt that could have made Butler the most dramatic story in the sport's history.
But it didn't go in. Duke 61, Butler 59.
So we are left to decide how to put Duke's latest national title in perspective after it really wasn't expected at any point this season prior to the Blue Devils' arrival at the Final Four.
If you're looking for a moment to define this team, the least publicized perhaps of any previous Duke champion, it might come down to a rebound off Hayward's first attempt to win the game with 3.6 seconds left and Butler down 60-59.
There was an outstretched hand from 7-foot-1 senior center Brian Zoubek that snatched the rebound before he was fouled.
"For it to come down to the wire and basically get the win on a defensive stop at the end was fitting,'' said Zoubek. "It came down to that play. If [Butler's Matt] Howard had gotten that rebound, it would not have been acceptable to me. For us to win, someone had to make a play.''
Zoubek made the first free throw, then missed the second on purpose in part because Butler was out of timeouts. It set up Hayward's near-historic half-court shot that bounced off the backboard and rim after the buzzer sounded.
Duke won this national title by being Butler. The Blue Devils were just as tough, physical and defensive-minded as the Bulldogs throughout the game. This was the mantra of a Blue Devils team that was hardly the most talented but had the mindset of a mid-major, as highly recruited players stayed three or four years. They were about team defense, half-court defense and making stops when it mattered most.
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.
Associate head coach Chris Collins said prior to the game that the Blue Devils wouldn't be in the Final Four, playing for the national championship, had it not been for Zoubek. He was put in the starting lineup against Maryland on Feb. 13 because sophomore Miles Plumlee wasn't playing at a high enough level. Once Zoubek was there he never left, and he became a presence that changed the outcome of games.
Zoubek played with foul problems throughout Monday night's title game and finished with eight points, 10 boards and two blocks. But more than anything, he was a presence that caused grief for Howard and any other Butler player who tried to score inside.
"I didn't think we'd have to work that hard,'' Zoubek said. "It's the hardest we've had to work to get a win. Butler did a great job, played great defense on us.''
That kind of effort by Zoubek -- with help from every other player on the defensive end -- was the difference.
"I don't think our seniors could have predicted this, anywhere near this kind of success through our career, just based on how our freshman year went,'' said Zoubek. "I mean, it just proves that if you keep with it, you keep your head down, keep working at it, I mean, good things will come if you put in the work.''
And that's exactly the mantra for junior Kyle Singler.
Junior Nolan Smith may have been the late shot-clock savior for Duke, the one player who could create off the dribble and get a bucket. Senior Jon Scheyer was discussed as an ACC Player of the Year candidate throughout the season and handled the point guard duties with ease.
But the Blue Devils weren't going to win the title if they didn't defend and get scoring from Singler.
Singler was the most hyped player on Duke's roster. He entered the season as an All-America candidate. But there were moments this season when Singler, as he moved to more of a small forward role, couldn't find his way. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski altered the offense to get Singler more touches. But Singler had to take on more ownership of his role.
He eventually did. Just look at the games from late February through the Final Four. Singler became much more of an offensive player and he hunted for his shot and drove to the basket as the aggressor. He was named the Most Outstanding Player for the Final Four because he averaged 20 points and nine rebounds in the two games here -- the first MOP to average 20 and nine since Connecticut's Emeka Okafor in 2004.
"I don't know what it is,'' Singler said. "I just think I try to enjoy everything with the guys and not worry about anything else. I just played basketball. I was putting pressure on myself trying to perform. But it was coming from a good spot because I wanted to win. I found that really wasn't the recipe. And then everything just fell into place.
"For me, and my career, I came to Duke to be a part of a champion. We won a few [ACC] championships, but this one is very special and means a lot more.''
Singler made several money shots in the title game, silencing the Butler crowd on a number of occasions. He had a chance to ice the Bulldogs but short-armed a midrange jumper that ultimately went off Zoubek and out of bounds with 13 seconds left.
And Singler ended up on the floor on the final play, compliments of a tough pick by Howard that freed Hayward for the final shot.
"It looked good from where I was," Singler said. "I'm surprised it didn't go in."
Almost as surprised as many are that this Duke team is a national champion.
Krzyzewski said after the game that Hayward's shot was a miracle shot that almost went in, in a tournament of miracles.
"I still can't believe we won,'' Krzyzewski said. "This team didn't take stuff from you, this team filled you up. I'll miss it. I hope I have a team like this again. I really do. It was as good a group as I ever had. They're a great team with really good talent, not off-the-chart talent, but really good talent that played great defense and rebounded. I feel so good to be a part of their moment.''
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.