When you’re fortunate enough to witness a sporting event on the level of the Butler-Duke NCAA national championship game, there’s not much that can be said to elaborate on what basketball fans already know ... Duke’s down-to-the-wire 61-59 victory on Monday was a stone classic.
Words to offer perspective won’t do ... all you can offer is thanks.
First, thank you to both teams. Neither team led by more than six points. There were 15 lead changes and seven ties. You’d take that excitement in a blah November nonconference game, much less having the national championship on the line. This was one of those rare games where it’s hard to discern what either team did wrong, it was more about what each team did right.
Thank you Butler guard Shelvin Mack for generating the early offense Butler needed. Duke took a 6-1 lead, and for the first time, looked like they were going to be the team that was going to get the Bulldogs rattled. Mack got Butler back on track.
Thank you Butler forward Avery Jukes for giving the performance that every great game should have — someone who comes out of nowhere to perform on the biggest stage. Jukes averaged 2.7 points per game and had six points in Butler’s five previous NCAA Tournament games. The senior had 10 points at halftime, all scored in the final 4:40 of the first half.
Thank you Duke center Brian Zoubek. Like Jukes, you gave this game another element it needed — someone to wear the black hat. Zoubek is one of those players who just make you angry. He’s physical, he’s not afraid to go over someone’s back for a rebound, he’s not afraid to put a body into a guard coming off a screen. All of that said, Zoubek made the defensive play of the game when he altered Gordon Hayward’s penultimate shot in the final seconds
Thank you Duke guard Kyle Singler. Butler fans probably didn’t appreciate it, but Singler, who had a game-high 19 points, was the X-factor for Duke as he continually made dagger shots that kept the Blue Devils in the game. He was a deserving Most Outstanding Player.
Thank you fans. The NCAA has been criticized for putting its marquee event into football domes. Intimacy and atmosphere usually exit stage left, but not Monday. The 70,930 fans somehow made Lucas Oil Stadium loud enough to be mistaken for a 10,000-seat pit. The atmosphere was fantastic.
Thank you basketball gods for waking me up. I’ll admit, Butler’s Cinderella run had left me cold as I’m usually averse to jumping on bandwagons, even ones I might be sympathetic towards.
But round about the 10-minute mark of the second half, I had that Alec Guinness in “The Bridge On The River Kwai” moment. My God, how can I not appreciate what I’m seeing here? A mid-major not only playing for the national championship, but making Duke earn every last point to get it. When the neutral crowd outside of the Butler fan sections started chanting “defense, defense” for the Bulldogs, a chill went down your spine, and you knew you were witnessing greatness.
Thank you for just a tad of controversy. Lance Thomas put a hard foul on a Hayward breakaway with 5:07 left. Intentional foul? Probably. The officials reviewed it and decided against the intentional foul. Hayward made the free throws, but another possession could have obviously made a big difference for the Bulldogs.
Thank you Butler for your defense. Down five with three minutes left, the Bulldogs reached down and got three consecutive stops. It gave an iconic game that iconic moment it deserved — a chance for underdog Butler to win the championship with the last shot.
Thank you Gordon Hayward for nearly giving this game the perfect ending. Hayward’s half-court heave at the buzzer seemed to hang there forever. It came so achingly close to falling through the cylinder, but it was too hard off the rim. It was the only time the basketball gods turned a blind eye towards creating a perfect game, though the gods came close.
Thank you Duke guard Jon Scheyer for having supreme class. Scheyer was the only Duke player after the game who sought out the dejected Bulldogs and shook each of their hands before he joined his teammates in the postgame celebration.
Once again, thank you Butler. Duke won the national championship, but Butler won in everyone’s collective memory. When the 2010 tournament, one of the greatest ever, is discussed, Butler will be the first team on everyone’s lips.
Finally, thank you again, basketball gods, for blessing me with the greatest sporting event I’ve ever had the fortune to cover and giving us all a game we’ll never, ever forget.
Todd Golden is sports editor of the Terre Haute Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out Golden’s blog at blogs.tribstar.com/downinthevalley.