They were portrayed as just not good enough in recent years, when measured against the towering success of their program over the last two decades. And then on the final night of Duke's unexpected climb to the national championship, suddenly the Blue Devils were too good, cast in a Final Four morality play as blue-blooded giants come to beat up on a fresh-faced, underdog newcomer playing in its home city before an adoring throng in a massive football stadium. It wasn't easy being Duke on one of the most remarkable Monday nights in the history of the NCAA tournament.
When it was finished, and the nets were sheared from their rims in celebration of a riveting 61--59 victory over Butler in which neither team ever led by more than six points and every basket was earned like a long day's wage, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski stood in front of his team in a small locker room in the belly of Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis. He held the game ball in his two sweaty hands, the championship trophy propped up nearby on a storage locker. It was his fourth title, tying Duke with archrival North Carolina for the most in the post--John Wooden era. "All year long I told you that you're a good team," he said to his players. "Tonight, you're a great team."
The Blue Devils became great because of the Bulldogs, who had won 25 straight games and become the first so-called mid-major to reach the championship in the 64-team era. Butler's story was sweet and tender, but its basketball was brutal and relentless, grounded in swarming half-court defense. "We almost had an aura where we thought we were going to win every game," said Bulldogs coach Brad Stevens after Monday's final.
They very nearly won this one. With seven seconds to play and Duke clinging to a 60--59 lead, Butler's gifted 6'9" sophomore Gordon Hayward missed a fallaway 15-foot shot from the right baseline. Duke's 7'1" senior center, Brian Zoubek, a central figure in his team's revival, clamped the rebound and was fouled with 3.6 seconds left.
Zoubek made the first free throw and then heard Krzyzewski tell him to miss the second. ("We figured with a rebound, and possession, it would force them to shoot from half-court," Coach K said later.) Zoubek threw the ball hard off the back rim. Hayward grabbed the rebound, pounded several dribbles to half-court—getting a crushing and possibly illegal pick on Duke's Kyle Singler from Matt Howard—and heaved a 46-foot shot. "Son of a gun looked good to me," said Singler.
The shot traced a sublime arc as the clock froze zeros. The ball hit the glass and the rim and fell away. The crowd of 70,930, second largest for a championship game in tournament history, seemed to gasp as one. Duke players tumbled into piles in celebration. "When it missed, this rush came over me," said Duke senior forward Lance Thomas. "Then Jon Scheyer tackled me."
Duke's performance was emblematic of a team that finished 35--5 and won with toughness rather than style. Before the game Krzyzewski wrote four words on a whiteboard in the locker room: STRONG. TOGETHER. TALK. CRASH. (As in the boards.) It was the language of effort. The Blue Devils won not just because Hayward's last shot bounced away but also because Singler (a junior wing who switched from power forward just this year, as the team was transformed) was the one player whom Butler couldn't stymie. He scored a game-high 19 points and was named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player. "We've developed and grown together," said Singler. "This is going to last forever."
Zoubek, whose sophomore and junior seasons had been undone by foot injuries, played the final 9:08 with four fouls and grabbed the critical rebound off Hayward's first miss. Scheyer, so often criticized for Duke's shortcomings, battled Butler's defense and committed just two turnovers. "Not many people can end their careers like this, even at Duke," Scheyer said after the game. "To do it with these guys just feels incredible."
And in a sweet piece of symmetry, Blue Devils junior guard Nolan Smith had 13 points and four assists in the same city where his late father, Derek, won the NCAA title with Louisville 30 years earlier. "This means the world," Smith said, while standing on the floor with a piece of net tucked behind his left ear. "I give this to my dad."
Three days before the start of the Final Four, on a warm Wednesday night, the Blue Devils' bus pulled out of the Indianapolis airport en route to their downtown headquarters. An old, familiar hotel came into view. Krzyzewski doesn't embrace reminiscences; he is perpetually annoyed by words like since and never, expressions that shackle today's goals with yesterday's glory. But here he allowed himself a brief indulgence. "That's where we stayed in '91," he said to his wife, Mickie, who was sitting next to him. They remembered that, at the time, it seemed too far from downtown, too far from the celebration of the sport. And then the bus rolled on.