It's hard to say much after a game like that other than: wow. Holy Cow. You cannot be serious. It may not have been an artistic success, but in terms of tension and drama, it'll be hard to beat anytime soon.
Duke has been a second half team all year, and that continued in the title game because the first half was very tight. Butler, in fact, beat Duke at their own game in the first half, out-working the Devils on the boards and for the most part being more aggressive.
Duke turned that around in the second half, exploiting their size advantage, pounding the boards and blocking shots. Those factors were really, really important. But just as important was this: Butler, consistently in this tournament, was the toughest team in the last five minutes. They were almost as tough as Duke, but not quite. A fraction less.
It could arguably come down, really, to some very small things in the end: Nored turning his head and Jon Scheyer drawing a foul. Thomas, with four fouls, asserting himself by forcing a tie-up. Zoubek deflecting the ball out of bounds, then pressuring the inbounds with a one-point lead, then pressuring Gordon Hayward's shot after Kyle Singler defended him with everything he had, then grabbing the rebound and getting fouled.
And then some not-so-small things.
Zoubek hitting the first and intentionally missing the second, then Hayward just barely missing what would have been the most epic game-winning shot in tournament history. Can you imagine if that had gone down? It would have trumped even Laettner.
But it didn't. The two greatest never-say-die teams in the country went toe-to-toe for 39 minutes and 56.4 seconds, and even in the last 3.6, Butler had one nasty, Zoubek-worthy pick to spring on Singler before Hayward's last shot missed by just an inch. Maybe two.
As we said, it wasn't a beautiful game, and Butler dictated a lot about how it evolved, which was exactly what we feared. What's amazing about this team is that they can go 5:00, 6:00, 7:00 minutes, nearly a quarter of the game without a basket, and then, all of a sudden, they're right in your grill. Without scoring a single basket for the longest time.
In the closing minutes, when Duke had a workable lead at 60-55, and seemed to be managing the end of the game just as well as they had all year, with just 3:05 left, we thought, briefly, that maybe this is the point where Butler's met their match. And we thought that because at the end of games this year, Duke has been like a python, squeezing the life out of their opponents and it seemed like it might be happening again, that Butler's incredible resolve had wavered just a bit.
You know, this was the stretch when Nolan Smith nearly stole it and when Mack was forced to take a difficult shot as time wound down. But Duke made two critical mistakes - Singler traveled, and then Butler's Matt Howard got loose for an easy shot under the basket. Just like that, it was a one-point game with less than a minute, and Singler threw up a shot which fell short.
In other words, the situations for which Butler lives: game pressure reversed, every possession critical, and the favored team on their heels. That's what they've become truly great at.
But not this time.
Duke was the first team in the tournament to be able to stand up to that, and perhaps no one else could have.
If Butler stole Duke's game in the first half, Duke in many ways stole Butler's as well. Who had more steals? Duke. Whose defense was triumphant? Duke's. Who won the one-on-one battle between Hayward and Singler? Singler of Duke.
Who, in the long run, proved to be tougher? Duke.
But not by much.
Butler was remarkable in this tournament for their ability to just hang in there and pounce when the opponent flinched. It wasn't by much, but Butler flinched and Duke didn't. Particular praise should go to Singler who had an amazing defensive game on Hayward, who is just brilliant. Singler held him to 2-11 from the floor. Hayward got eight from the foul line, but holding him to 12 points and 2-11 is impressive, to say the least.
Small but telling stat: Butler's last three pointer came with 13:35 left.
After the game, Coach K rightly lauded the Bulldogs and talked about not just their heart, but how this team will change the perception of the University. He also praised Hayward and Mack for their play in the U-19 games. But his most interesting comments came when a reporter tried to ask Zoubek about his "up-and-down" career. Krzyzewski was having none of that. He reminded the assembled that Zoubek had overcome wicked injuries and, frankly, triumphed long before his critical plays down the stretch of this game.
He also spoke of his love for this team and how much they've grown. And that, it seems to us, is undeniable, particularly for the seniors. Consider:
Although Scheyer was a solid player from day one, Zoubek was limited by injuries for most of his career, and Lance Thomas, you may recall, had exactly one assist his freshman year and almost no offensive ability at all.
As it turns out, the bloody-post VCU picture of Scheyer motivated him mightily. And remember, he wasn't recruited as a point guard. He was the backup point as a freshman, out of necessity. Remember? He said it might help him later.
Zoubek and Thomas were also hard workers who overcame a lot and who improved immensely. Thomas became a superb defender, a solid rebounder, and a guy who emerged as a forceful leader, as has Zoubek.
And the same is true for juniors Singler and Smith. Singler has changed positions every year, and Smith went through some real down times last season before his huge improvement this year.
All of these guys grew up a great deal, stuck with it through hard times, and look at the payoff: from VCU to this.
Despite all our pleasure in the accomplishment -- and it's richly deserved -- we should also remember our opponents. Butler is a remarkable program, led by a stunning young coach. They fell short Monday night, but this program isn't going anywhere, and we hope Brad Stevens isn't either. Because if you can do it at Butler, you know, why not do it at Butler?