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Jeff Eisenberg

Hayward's two near-misses deny Butler an upset for the ages

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

Whether it's Mario Chalmers' 3-pointer, Michael Jordan's baseline jumper or Lorenzo Charles' upset-sealing alley-oop, the indelible image from previous magical national title games has typically been a game-saving basket.

It's a testament then to the significance of Butler's improbable run this year that what we'll remember most about Monday night's game are two missed shots.

Butler star Gordon Hayward twice had opportunities in the final seconds to give his team's Hoosiers-like run the Hollywood ending it deserved, but heavily favored Duke escaped with a 61-59 victory because neither shot fell.

First Hayward's fallaway baseline jumper over 7-footer Brian Zoubek clanged hard off the back rim with five seconds remaining. Then after a Zoubek free throw increased Duke's lead to two with 3.6 seconds remaining, Hayward's half-court shot at the buzzer caromed off the glass and the rim, only a few inches away from a shining moment to trump all others.

"Felt good. Looked good," Hayward said tersely afterward. "Just wasn't there."

If a Butler victory wouldn't have been quite as monumental an upset as NC State over Houston in 1983 or Villanova over Georgetown in 1985, the Bulldogs still would have been one of the most unlikely NCAA champions to cut down the nets. Never before had Butler advanced past the Sweet 16, yet the undersized team from a tiny 4,200-student private school was one shot away from becoming the first champion from outside the power six conferences since UNLV in 1990 and the first ever from the Horizon League.

The saddest part of Butler's loss was that it was set up so perfectly for the Bulldogs to deliver a finish that would have been almost too good to be true. A one-possession deficit. A 70,000-seat arena jammed to the rafters with Butler fans. The ball in the hands of Hayward, the one-time tennis prodigy turned NBA prospect who had led the fifth-seeded Bulldogs to 25 straight victories and NCAA tournament upsets over Syracuse, Kansas State and Michigan State.

In a somber post-game news conference, Hayward was asked whether he'd most remember Butler's thrilling run to the title game or the heart-wrenching way that it ended.

"For me, it's going to be the loss," he said. "I hate losing. It's one of the worst feelings personally that I have is losing. So, it's great for us to be here, but that's not what we wanted to do. We wanted to win."

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