INDIANAPOLIS – The ball sailed from halfcourt with the buzzer sounding — bounced off the backboard, the rim, the floor. Most of the 70,000 fans on Butler's side let out an "Ohhhhhh," and the Duke players piled onto forward Kyle Singler at center court. What a game! And what a way to end the season, even if America's favorite underdog came up a little short.
Duke beat Butler 61-59 for the national championship Monday night, a win that wasn't secure until after the buzzer sounded — when Gordon Hayward's half-court, 3-point heave for the win barely missed to leave tiny Butler one cruel basket short of the Hollywood ending.
Singler scored 19 points and Brian Zoubek rebounded Hayward's miss with 3.6 seconds left — the first of two chances Butler had to win it — to end the overachieving underdog's try for a real-life "Hoosiers" sequel.
"We just came up a bounce short," Butler coach Brad Stevens said.
That bounce went in favor of the Blue Devils (35-5), who snapped Butler's 25-game winning streak and brought the long-awaited fourth national title back home to Carolina and the Cameron Crazies.
The "Big Three" — Singler, Jon Scheyer (15 points) and Nolan Smith (13) — won the Big One for coach Mike Krzyzewski, his first championship since 2001 and the fourth overall, tying Coach K with Adolph Rupp for second place on the all-time list.
"First of all, it was a great basketball game. I want to congratulate an amazing Butler team and their fans," Krzyzewski said. "Fabulous year. We played a great game, they played a great game. It's hard for me to say it, to imagine that we're the national champions."
Nobody figured this would be easy, and it wasn't — no way that was going to happen against Butler, the 4,200-student private school that turned the tournament upside down and drove 5.6 miles from its historic home, Hinkle Fieldhouse, to the Final Four.
Butler (33-5) shaved a five-point deficit to one and had a chance to win it, when its best player, Hayward, took the ball at the top of the key, spun and worked his way to the baseline, but was forced to put up an off-balance fadeaway from 15 feet.
He missed, Zoubek got the rebound and made the first of two free throws. He missed the second one intentionally, and Duke's title wasn't secure until Hayward's desperation heave bounded out.
"I can't really put it into words because the last couple of plays were just not normal," Singler said.
What a game to end one of the most memorable tournaments in history, filled with close games, upsets and underdogs; the kind of tournament that some fear could be history if the NCAA goes ahead with what an expansion to 96 teams — something very much on the table for next year.
"Both teams and all the kids on both teams played their hearts out," Krzyzewski said. "There was never more than a couple, a few points separating, so a lot of kids made big plays for both teams."
Nobody led by more than six.
Playing against the Bulldogs and working against a crowd of 70,930 with very few pockets of Duke fans, the Blue Devils persevered — never leading by more than six but never falling behind after Singler hit a 3-pointer with 13:03 left for a 47-43 lead.
The Blue Devils won with defense. They held the Bulldogs to 34 percent shooting and contested every possession as tenaciously as Butler, which allowed 60 points for the first time since February. Zoubek, the 7-foot-1 center, finished with two blocks, 10 rebounds and too many altered shots to count, but also came out to trap the Butler guards and disrupt an offense that was already struggling.
They won with some clutch shooting, including Singler's 3-for-6 effort from 3-point range and 6 of 6 from the free throw line in the second half until Zoubek's intentional miss.
They won with a mean streak, most pointed when Lance Thomas took down Hayward hard to prevent an easy layup with 5:07 left. The refs reviewed the play and decided not to call it flagrant — one of a hundred little moments that could have swung such a tight, taut game.
"They weren't going to go away," Singler said. "We needed every last minute of that game to get this win. It was a great game."
In the true team fashion that has defined "The Butler Way," the Bulldog scoring was distributed almost perfectly even. Hayward and Shelvin Mack had 12 each. Matt Howard, coming off a concussion in the semifinal win over Michigan State, finished with 11, and 2-point-a-game scorer Avery Jukes kept Butler in it with all 10 of his points in the first half.
But Butler's 33-year-old coach, Stevens, was correct when he said his team couldn't endure another 15-for-49 shooting night — what Butler shot Saturday in the semifinals. The Bulldogs went 20 for 58 this time — 34.5 percent. All the heart in the world couldn't overcome that.
"I said yesterday that when you coach these guys, you can be at peace with whatever result you achieve from a won-loss standpoint because of what they gave — they gave everything we had," Stevens said. "There's certainly nothing to hang your head about. I told them in there, what they've done, what they did together, will last longer than one night, regardless of the outcome."
A disappointing ending to those who wanted to see the "Hoosiers" sequel play out in real life. In that movie, based on the high school championship won by tiny Milan High in 1954, Jimmy Chitwood hits the game-winner at the buzzer to win one for the little guys.
Thankfully, that movie is still available on DVD.
This one, or some version of it, might be too, someday.
Despite losing, Butler may have proven its point nonetheless.
Mega-money and power conferences aren't the only ones with a chance in big-time college sports. Nothing proves that better than the NCAA tournament — March Madness, a great event that stayed great into April this year.
Never better for Duke, which won a different way this year.
There were no superstars, just a bunch of solid players who may end up in the NBA — not with lottery-pick money in their pockets, but with a national title forever.
That's always the goal in Krzyzewski's program, and the fact that the Blue Devils hadn't been to the Final Four since 2004 didn't go unnoticed down on Tobacco Road, especially while North Carolina was winning two championships over that span.
But while last year's champions, the Tar Heels, rebuild, Duke is this season's standard-setter.
Everyone thought the perfect ending would be for Butler to win in its hometown, but the Blue Devils also like Indy — it's the place where they won their first championship, with Christian Laettner at the helm, back in 1991.
It's also the city where Smith's late father, Derek Smith, led Louisville to a championship in 1980.
Some pretty nice symmetry there. Some might call that a Hollywood ending, too.
"I can't explain how happy I am," Smith said. "Like father, like son. This is so special to me right now."