Stunned Bulldogs proved they belong
INDIANAPOLIS -- They piled into the golf cart that would take them to their postgame interviews -- Avery Jukes in the shotgun seat, Shelvin Mack and Gordon Hayward side-by-side on the rear-facing backseat.
No one cried or even so much as dabbed at his eyes. Jukes held his chin in his hand, Mack put his head down and Hayward just stared vacantly ahead.
Of course, the Butler players were crushed that they had just lost a national championship game for the ages to Duke, 61-59, but more, the Bulldogs were stunned.
Stunned that Hayward's fadeaway on the baseline didn't fall, stunned that his last-ditch half-court shot bounced off the backboard and front of the rim, but most of all stunned that they didn't win.
"They don't like to lose,'' Butler coach Brad Stevens said. "They felt like they could come in here and win. They may have been the only people who believed it, but they believed it.''
And so when the game ended and the confetti fell, and the Duke players celebrated, many of the Butler players just sort of stood there, bewildered.
"Just shock,'' Matt Howard said. "Two shots, two game-winners, I can't really describe it. We didn't expect it to end this way.''
To many, Butler was little more than a nice feel-good story, a scripted Hollywood fairy tale come to life. Coaches lined up in the day between the national semifinal and final to offer their opinions, and almost universally, their opinions were the same -- that Duke would win and win easily.
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It's the way it usually goes when fairy tales run hard into reality. The slipper shatters, the carriage gets a flat and the princess can't convert the frog no matter how many times she kisses it.
But Butler was never some maid blessed with sudden good fortune. The Bulldogs didn't need to measure the baskets, and Stevens didn't need to make any fire-and-brimstone speeches.
This is a team accustomed to winning.
The Bulldogs hadn't lost a game in 105 days, a string dating to Dec. 22.
They'd won blowouts and buzzer-beaters in between, toppling Horizon League foes and BCS powers.
Why couldn't they win a national championship?
"We've won 25, 26 in a row? I can't even remember now, I've lost count,'' Willie Veasley said (it was actually 25). "We don't know how to lose anymore. I know a lot of people think we didn't belong here, but maybe now they see that we did.''
Who could argue?
Butler wasn't the beneficiary of some busted bracket. The Bulldogs ousted a No. 1 seed (Syracuse) and a No. 2 (Kansas State) en route to the title game and then were two heartbreaking heartbeats away from what most agreed would have been the most historical win in the history of the NCAA tournament.
We don't know how to lose anymore. I know a lot of people think we didn't belong here, but maybe now they see that we did.” -- Butler senior Willie Veasley
They didn't shoot the ball well -- only 34 percent for the game. One of their best players, Howard, played all of 19 minutes because of foul trouble. And with three minutes left and mired in a one-field-goal-in-10-minutes drought, they trailed one of the most storied programs in college basketball by five.
Yet there was Butler, feeding Howard on two consecutive possessions to make it 60-59.
When Kyle Singler, who had been sensational all night for Duke, whiffed on a wide-open jumper and Ronald Nored came up with the loose ball in a scramble, everyone in the crowd of 70,930 rose, awaiting the real-life "Hoosiers" moment.
And when the ball ended up in the hands of Hayward, the reincarnation of Bobby Plump/Jimmy Chitwood, the script seemed headed for its perfect ending.
Hayward is the one guy in this Final Four most everyone agreed would be a first-round draft pick if he comes out early -- the sophomore said he hadn't given the decision any thought but would talk it over with his family -- and though he struggled mightily against Duke (2-of-11), he was the guy everyone agreed should have the ball with the game on the line.
"I did and everyone else did,'' Stevens said. "We wanted to isolate him and let him go to work.''
With 13 seconds left, Hayward dribbled to the right baseline and rose up for a fadeaway.
From the bench, Nored thought it was in. So did Stevens.
On the court, Howard was convinced it was dropping and Veasley couldn't imagine how it wouldn't.
"I've seen Gordon make that shot 100 times,'' Howard said, summing up the sentiments of everyone in a Butler uniform.
Except this time, the shot bounced off the back side of the rim and Brian Zoubek came up with the rebound.
"A fadeaway from the baseline isn't necessarily a high-percentage shot, but I got a pretty good look at it,'' Hayward said. "I just missed it.''
Fouled immediately, Zoubek hit one free throw and intentionally missed the second, leaving Hayward with no choice but to hurl a half-court shot, a shot that almost gave the NCAA tournament its brightest of shining moments when it bounced off the backboard before ricocheting off the front end of the rim and falling to the floor.
"Talk about a storybook ending, that would be it,'' Stevens said.
That the story didn't have the happy ending in no way diminishes what Butler did and what it proved -- that this national championship run, improbable to some, was frankly nothing more than the continued growth of a program long on the rise -- a program that isn't fading anytime soon.
Depending on what Hayward decides, Butler could return four of its five starters. This team will be very good again next year, continuing a run of success that predated this team and even this coach.
Asked how this would help recruiting, Stevens didn't blink.
"I don't think we can get better guys than the ones we have,'' he said. "We were two bounces from a national championship. Just because they don't have stars next to their names ''
He didn't finish the thought, but we can:
Just because they don't have stars next to their names, doesn't mean the Bulldogs didn't belong.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com.
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