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Posted: Tuesday April 6, 2010 3:07AM; Updated: Tuesday April 6, 2010 9:11AM
Joe Posnanski
Joe Posnanski>INSIDE COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Magical game comes down to last shot and Duke earns greatness

Story Highlights

Both teams played impossibly hard in this spectacular national title showdown

With all of the justifiable fawning over Butler, people overlooked Duke's story

Shortly after Hayward's shot rimmed out, Coach K said it: "You are a great team"

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(1) Duke (5) Butler

59

Gordon Hayward
Butler's Gordon Hayward almost hit this last-second runner to win a national title.
John Biever/SI

INDIANAPOLIS -- The ball is in the air. And because the ball is in the air, anything is possible. Miracle? Heartbreak? Pandemonium? Silence? Yes. Anything. That's the beauty of a magical game like this, and also the pain. The basketball is in the air. If it misses, Duke wins one of the greatest championship games ever. And if it goes in (and it looks like it is going in), Butler wins the greatest game that has ever been played.

The basketball is in the air, a 45-foot shot that looks like it is going in, and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski knows that if it goes in, the right team won. And he also knows that if it misses, the right team won, too. This is that kind of game. Both teams have played impossibly hard. Every player defended with every ounce of strength they had. Every player made a winning play -- something, a rebound, a block, a devastating pick, a tough foul, a big shot, a good pass, a hard drive to the basket -- that added a line or shade to this masterpiece. Duke wore white, and Butler wore dark blue (the opposite of the image they came into this game with), but they played so much the same -- the same energy, the same violence, the same togetherness, the same purpose -- that at some point they just seemed to mix together into this wonderful blend of gray.

And now it comes to this -- a ball in the air and the quirks of gravity and chance and the bounce. Duke could have pulled away. Several times it looked like Duke would pull away -- the Blue Devils had a four-point lead, a five-point lead, and they had the ball, and it just felt like one more basket, one more three-pointer would slay Butler once and for all. But Duke could not make the shot. Not on this crazy night.

Then again, a couple of times it looked like Butler had the magic, that beautiful magic that can happen when five players defend like one and everybody on the team believes in the absurd. With six seconds left, Butler star Gordon Hayward drove to the baseline, and, while fading out of bounds, shot a high-arching 15-footer that felt good leaving his hands, looked good falling toward to the basket, and would have given Butler the lead and perhaps the title. The shot, though, was a touch long and the ball bounced out.

And now, the buzzer sounds, the crowd is standing, America is watching, and the basketball is in the air -- Hayward's not-quite desperation 45-foot shot that will decide this game is in the air.

"It had a chance," Butler coach Brad Stevens would say.

"It looked good," Duke's Kyle Singler would say.

"I was just praying it would not go in," Duke's Nolan Smith would say.

"I thought it was going in," Butler's Matt Howard would say.

But you already know. The basketball is not in the air. The basketball hits the backboard a touch hard. The basketball hits the front rim. And the basketball falls away. It could have fallen. It did not fall. And Duke wins the national championship.

"I still can't believe we won," Krzyzewski said after it ended, and his voice sounded hoarse, and he had been crying. Four Duke championships -- this was easily the most emotional Krzyzewski had ever looked. He stared out.

"I don't think we were lucky," he said. "Because we earned it. But there is some ..."

He paused. There is some ... some what?

"But there is some ... yeah," he said.

*****

Some ... yeah. What a game. What a night. Everybody knows the amazing Butler story, but the truth is that there was a Duke story, too. Nobody thought this was a great Duke team. Seven times in 24 years, Krzyzewski had coached a Duke team into the national championship game, a staggering achievement, but each of those teams had that certain Duke aura. Those were terrific teams, and they were expected to be terrific teams, and they had All-Americas, and, well, this team was different. This team had very good players, of course. But there were no first-team All-American. There was no Grant Hill here, no Christian Laettner, no Jay Williams or Shane Battier. The core of this team got drilled in the Sweet 16 of the tournament last year by Villanova, and the bulk of this team lost three of its first seven conference games. They were good all year. But they just seemed vulnerable.

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