Butler's wonderful ride ends 1 win short of title

Apr 6, 2010 - 7:36 AM By NANCY ARMOUR AP National Writer

INDIANAPOLIS(AP) -- Matt Howard crumpled to the ground and covered his face with his hands. Gordon Hayward walked off the court, the sparkle gone from his eyes. Willie Veasley sat in the locker room, his jersey pulled over his head.

Life will never be the same for Butler. The team from the tiny school was the biggest thing going in college basketball for a few days, captivating the whole country with a heartwarming story that seemed tailor-made for Hollywood.

But Butler never wanted some bit part. It wanted the whole thing, and coming so close makes it hurt that much worse.

"They're crushed," Butler coach Brad Stevens said after the Bulldogs' 61-59 loss to Duke in the NCAA championship Monday night. "I mean, this matters. They didn't come in here thinking they were just going to roll over and not have a chance. They wanted to win."

It's little consolation now, but this game will be remembered as much for Butler's grit and heart as Duke's fourth title. Maybe even moreso. Hayward will be playing in the NBA someday, and maybe Howard, too. But the Bulldogs were a team where the sum was greater than its parts, where how they played mattered as much as the final score.

With their best player struggling and shots not falling against one of the game's powerhouses, plenty of teams would have packed it in. Not the Bulldogs (33-5).

Trailing 60-55 with 3:16 to play, Howard - who'd only been cleared to play Monday afternoon after sustaining a concussion in Saturday night's semifinals - made two layups, including one with 55 seconds left that pulled Butler within one. Kyle Singler missed at the other end, and Ronald Nored came up with the rebound.

But Hayward missed a jumper, and Brian Zoubek got the rebound. Zoubek was fouled and made the first free throw, screaming as the ball dropped through the net. He intentionally missed the second, and Hayward got the rebound with 3 seconds left.

Hayward had made a buzzer-beater in 2008 to give Brownsburg the Indiana Class 4A title. But this one missed, bringing an end to Butler's wonderful ride.

"I was standing at half-court and thought it was going," Howard said, rubbing his eyes. "That makes it even more devastating when it rims out."

It wasn't the "Hoosiers" sequel that almost the entire crowd of 70,930 - not to mention all those new Butler fans around the country - had hoped for. Shooting as poorly as the Bulldogs did - 20 of 58 - will eventually catch up with you.

But Butler's run will be one for the ages.

College athletics have become almost sterile, as much big business as game. Most teams that get this far in the tournament are from major universities, with facilities that would make NBA teams drool and budgets that dwarf the GNPs of some third-world countries.

Butler, however, puts the "old" in old school. With 4,200 students, it was the smallest school to play for the title since the field was expanded to 64 in 1985 and fourth-smallest overall. Forget state-of-the-art facilities. The Bulldogs play in an 82-year-old gym, the barn-like Hinkle Fieldhouse. Practice there, too - at 6:30 a.m., no less. There are no athletic dorms and, yes, those were some of the Butler players spotted in the classroom Monday morning.

The Bulldogs call their style "The Butler Way," and it has nothing to do with Xs and Os, backdoor cuts or zone defense. It's the next guy stepping up, everybody having each other's back.

"Butler will no longer be what it has been, which has been pretty darn good," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "And everything that's good about Butler, which are so many things, will now have a chance to be seen in many areas, not just basketball."

Indeed, as the Bulldogs walked out of the arena to make the short drive back to campus, just 5.6 miles from Lucas Oil Stadium, the security guards in the hallways applauded them.

"Great job," some called out.

"Way to go," others yelled.

"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," Stevens said. "There's certainly nothing to hang your head about.

"I told them in there, what they've done, what they did together, will last longer than one night," Stevens said, "regardless of the outcome."

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