Duke holds off upset-minded Butler to win national title

INDIANAPOLIS – Delighting its fans and no doubt exasperating detractors, Duke struck back on Monday night to claim coach Mike Krzyzewski’s fourth national title at the expense of what loomed as one of the epic inspirational stories in sports lore.

Still, Duke’s 61-59 victory will be remembered as one of the monumental ones in NCAA championship history, one settled by the narrowest of margins.

“Literally,” Duke’s Andre Dawkins said, “it was a matter of inches.”

It wasn’t over until Butler’s Gordon Hayward barely missed two potential game-winning shots in the final seconds. Each appeared on trajectory, including one at the buzzer from halfcourt that banked off the inside of the rim.

As the decisive last shot lingered in the air, a hush seemed to come over the crowd of 70,930 at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Duke’s Nolan Smith just thought, “Please don’t.”

Having it end that way, Butler forward Matt Howard said, “makes it even a little more devastating.”

The teams were tethered to each other for most of a game that featured 15 lead changes and seven ties. Duke’s biggest lead was six points, for 20 seconds.

“We just came up one possession short in a game with about 145 possessions,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said.

In defeating Butler, the Blue Devils doused what Krzyzewski on Sunday had said would be “a huge exclamation point on parity. It (would say), ‘Look, if you haven’t listened, here is my final argument.”’ Instead, Duke said case closed on Butler’s hopes of becoming the smallest school to win the national title since Holy Cross in 1947.

Duke (35-5) was led by Kyle Singler’s 19 points to seize its first title since 2001 against a Butler team with a $1.7 million budget playing in its first Final Four. Duke’s program had $13.8 million in expenses last year, according to the web site bbstate.com.

Butler’s run still won’t soon be forgotten, considering it beat No. 1 seed Syracuse, No. 2 seed Kansas State and tournament-proven Michigan State in the national semifinal. But it ended a game short of another dimension altogether for the Bulldogs (33-5).

“They’re crushed,” Stevens said. “This matters.”

With Butler forward Matt Howard perhaps showing signs of suffering a mild concussion on Saturday by missing three shots and three of four free throws early, Duke could have taken a commanding lead early.

As it was, Duke opened a 26-20 lead on a Jon Scheyer three-pointer and a Singler layup with just over 5 minutes left in the half.

To that point, Butler had made eight of 28 shots.

The Bulldogs however made up the gap in just more than a minute, with one Avery Jukes’ three-pointer giving them a 27-26 lead and another that cut Duke’s lead to 33-32 just before halftime.

Atoning for atrocious shooting, Butler was in the game thanks to outrebounding Duke 24-17 in the first half _ including 12 offensive rebounds _ to hold a 10-3 advantage in second-chance points.

The Bulldogs also were in it because of an implausible contribution by Jukes, whose 10 points in one 4:20 stretch equaled his season high and were more than he had totaled in the previous seven games combined.

Hayward, who had seven rebounds but only four points in the first half, started the second half with two free throws to trigger lead changes and ties until Duke’s Brian Zoubek put in a layup after a three-pointer by Singler to make it 47-43 Duke midway through the half.

With Duke plucking 15 of the first 22 second-half rebounds, the Blue Devils kept Butler between two and five points away until Hayward cut it to 56-55 with 5:07 left after going down hard on a foul by Duke’s Lance Thomas.

A Singler jumper and two free throws by Nolan Smith gave Duke a 60-55 edge, but Howard converted a pass from Hayward, then put in a rebound with 54.8 seconds left to make it 60-59.

After a Singler miss, the rebound was ruled out of bounds on Duke with 33.7 seconds left, giving Butler a chance to put in a game-winner. But Hayward’s fadeaway with about 4 seconds left caromed away.

After Zoubek was fouled and made the first free throw with 3.2 seconds left, he intentionally missed the second to break up Butler’s chances of making a three. Hayward rebounded and got one last chance, but just missed.

“This was a classic,” Krzyzewski said. “It was a game that we won, but they didn’t lose.”

This article was distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.