Monday night’s NCAA Championship matchup between Duke and Butler may have lacked star power, but it certainly didn’t lack excitement.
The No. 1 seed Duke Blue Devils (35-5) barely escaped with 61-59 victory against the No. 5 seed Butler Bulldogs (33-5) in front of a crowd of 70,000 shouting fans in Indianapolis. Duke’s win marked only the 11th championship in NCAA history to be decided by two points or fewer and it was the closest margin of victory since Michigan edged Seton Hall, 80-79, in the 1989 championship.
Even Blue Devils legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski was stunned how his team barely came out on top.
“Both teams and all the kids on both teams played their hearts out here was never more than a couple, a few points separating, so a lot of kids made big plays for both teams,” Coach Krzyzewski told reporter after winning his fourth national title. “It’s hard for me to say it, to imagine that we’re national champions.”
It’s hard for Coach K to imagine because he realized just how close Butler came from standing in the winner’s circle. With a two point lead and only three seconds left in the game, Butler guard/forward Gordon Hayward flew up court with an inbound pass and heaved up a half court prayer of a shot that barely bounced out as time expired.
“We just came up a bounce short,” said Butler coach Brad Stevens, the second youngest coach at 33 to appear in the NCAA championship. “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.”
Coach Stevens told reporter that his players have nothing to hang their heads about because they matched Duke in effort throughout the game. Duke’s best players performed well, with Kyle Singler scoring 19 points, John Scheyer scoring 15 and Nolan Smith adding 13. Yet Butler’s best players made just as many big players with Gordan Hayward and Shelvin Mack both scoring 12 points, followed by Matt Howard with 11 and Avery Dukes adding 10 off the bench.
Despite the loss, Butler still won the hearts of fans as an underdog that can hold its weight with the big dogs of the NCAA. They also proved that powerhouse programs with huge athletics budgets aren’t the only programs that can compete on a championship stage.
Duke had something to prove, too. They won a title with a group of solid players, no super star talent present. So while the Blue Devils may not send any players into the first round of the NBA draft, they’ll still have national championship they can celebrate forever.