INDIANAPOLIS - Gordon Hayward was in pain late Monday night. Not the kind of pain that makes someone head for the hospital. This was emotional, heartbreaking, gut wrenching pain.
Anyone who didn’t feel that misery along with Hayward must have been one of two things — either a devout Duke fan or some cruel soul who hates happy endings.
“I hate losing,” Hayward said just moments after Duke defeated Butler 61-59 for the NCAA national championship. “It’s one of the worst feelings personally that I have, is losing. It’s great for us to be here. But that’s not what we wanted to do. We wanted to win.”
Hayward wasn’t crying. His eyes weren’t red from rubbing away the tears. He handled this difficult defeat like a man, with class and maturity. Butler had won 25 consecutive games. America was rooting for the team with the adorable bulldog mascot.
There were a lot of basketball fans roaming the streets of Indianapolis Monday wearing Butler T-shirts and hats. Those NCAA vendors, who set up under their big white tents, probably could have sold as many, if not more, I HATE DUKE shirts. But none were available.
Still, this isn’t about hating Duke. This is about coming so close to the perfect ending and then being deprived of that satisfaction.
“I just hate losing,” Hayward said to anyone who might have missed his point.
Butler’s best basketball player had just experienced not one, but two, deflating moments. Two moments that he instantly wanted back and will think about the rest of his life.
Sometimes, it doesn’t work that way. A crowd of 70,930 watched as Hayward missed a jump shot from the right side with seven seconds left. Then everyone held their breath and watched again as he launched a desperation 3-pointer that banked off the backboard and just teased Bulldog fans before the buzzer.
These shots were dialed in. Both looked good as they came out of Hayward’s hands. Either one could have been the game-winning shot for little Butler, the mid-major program that grew into a major problem for everyone else in this NCAA tournament. But there would be no Hollywood ending. Not even a Hickory-style ending.
This night felt like “Hoosiers, The Sequel.” If you loved the movie, think how exciting this would have been in real-time. This would have been the updated version, the 2010 version with friends using their social media skills on Facebook and Twitter to drive up the crazy TV ratings.
Instead, we got the same old thing. Duke now has won four national championships since 1991. Mike Krzyzewski is a great coach. According to the record book, Coach K and his four titles make him better than anyone other than John Wooden and Adolph Rupp.
Haven’t we read this script before?
After cutting down the nets, Krzyzewski kept saying this was the best championship game one of his Duke teams had ever participated in. Baloney.
The Blue Devils and Bulldogs put on a great show, but the best championship game Duke ever participated in was 1999. Coach K and the Blue Devils were heavy favorites in that game too, but they lost to Connecticut, 77-74.
Coach K didn’t want to mention 1999 because his Devils lost a game they should have won.
“I still can’t believe we won,” Krzyzewski said Monday night. “The game was so good that anyone could have won.”
How silly is that? The game was so good, it’s a dirty rotten shame Butler didn’t win. At halftime, with Duke leading 33-32, the perfect ending seemed obvious. The script for “The Sequel” should have included a last-second winning shot by Hayward, the 6-9 sophomore who was best suited for the role of Jimmy Chitwood.
Hayward struggled with his shot and wasn’t fully involved in Butler’s offense in the first half. He was 2-for-7 from the field and scored just four points in the first 20 minutes. But so many other things were going right the Bulldogs, it was obvious they would keep it close for at least a portion of the second half.
Duke was the superior team, but in college basketball the best team doesn’t always win the national championship. Imagine what Kansas coach Bill Self, Kentucky coach John Calipari and Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim must have been thinking during the Final Four. They were the other No. 1 seeds and, on paper, all three teams were better than Duke or Butler.
Many questioned whether Duke deserved a No. 1 seed. Even though the Devils were the last of the No. 1 seeds, they received the easiest path to the Final Four when the brackets were released. Remember that?
Look, Duke made tremendous progress in the final two months of the season but the Devils are one of the most flawed national champions in the past 25 years. No one would have been surprised if Butler had hung around for about 10 minutes, only to have Duke blow them away.
But this game was close throughout.
Duke didn't take advantage of Brian Zoubek's size inside. Butler held a 24-17 advantage on the boards at halftime, including 12-3 on the offensive end. The Blue Devils eventually held a two-rebound advantage at the end of the game, but the poor effort early kept Butler in the game.
Then you had Avery Jukes, a Butler senior who threw down 10 points in 10 minutes in the first half. Jukes had scored six points on 3-for-11 shooting in the first five games of the NCAA Tournament and suddenly he hit 4 of 6 shots and led Butler in first-half scoring.
Zach Hahn, a junior guard from New Castle, Ind., hit a three-pointer in the first half and the stadium, filled with Butler fans who gave the Bulldogs the greatest home court advantage in the championship game history, went crazy. Butler fans were much louder than Saturday night and their presence must have played a role.
Ronald Nored was left wide open in the right corner and buried a three-pointer with 13:35 left that gave Butler a 43-42 lead. That was the clear signal that the Bulldogs weren’t going away. Duke got the lead up five points in the final eight minutes, but things never got comfortable.
If Hayward’s shot at the buzzer had gone in — and it came close — the entire sporting world would have been questioning the decision to have Zoubek miss his second free throw with 3.6 seconds left.
Instead, Duke celebrated among the confetti. Coach K has moved up another notch and past his mentor, Bob Knight.
But Butler should have won Monday night. That would have been a better ending.
“You get pretty excited when the ball is in the air,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said. “ We had two shots to win the game. Our guys don’t like to lose. They’re very prideful. Any time you have a player of Gordon’s caliber and he’s got the ball in his hands, you feel like you’ve got a chance to win.”