The players stood motionless in front of their bench and watched the celebration unfold with utter disbelief.
The crowd of more than 70,000, filled primarily with a combination of Butler diehards and bandwagon fans that had come to support the supposed-Cinderella story, didn’t move for seconds, even minutes — shell-shocked by what had just transpired. “As soon as the fireworks went off and I saw the Duke guys jumping around,” Butler senior Willie Veasley said. "That’s when I knew it was over.”
Butler came within one shot — a few inches, in fact — of making history.
“I’m still sort of in shock,” Bulldogs junior Matt Howard said after the 61-59 loss on Monday night in the national title game. “We didn’t expect it to end this way.”
It was the picturesque ending that just about everyone that wasn’t born in Durham, N.C., or has a degree from Duke wanted to witness.
It was the boys out of the Horizon League that weren’t given a sniff by the big-timers coming out of high school against a despised Duke program headed up by a guy, Mike Krzyzewski, who will soon become the all-time winningest coach in Division I history.
They were looking to become the first non-BCS team to win it all since UNLV did it 20 years ago. But this team wasn’t anything like that Runnin’ Rebels team that was loaded with future pros.
It may not have been David vs. Goliath, but it was pretty close.
However, Gordon Hayward’s baseline jumper over the outstretched arms of 7-foot-1 center Brian Zoubek bounced off the back rim with three seconds left. The Bulldogs’ star sophomore had another potential game-winner, a desperation heave from half-court that had a chance before rolling off the rim as the buzzer sounded.
“It went in slow motion,” Butler’s Shelvin Mack said of the shot.
“I thought it was in,” Bulldogs sophomore point guard Ronald Nored said of the first attempt.
“Again, I thought it was in,” he added of the second Hayward game-winning opportunity. There may be a celebration for the little guys later this week in Indianapolis, but it just won’t be nearly the same mayhem the city would have witnessed had Butler cut down the nets following the game.
“Losing sucks,” Hayward said. “It was a good run and a lot of fun, but we didn’t come here to get second place.”
Sure, if Hayward decided to spurn the NBA for another year and Butler’s 33-year-old wunderkind coach, Brad Stevens, also decided to pass on the hefty payday of, say, Oregon or Boston College, the Bulldogs could be back in the Final Four next year.
The Bulldogs lose one starter, Veasley, and a pair of reserves in Avery Jukes and seldom-used Nick Rodgers.
“Hopefully, we’ll be back here next year,” said sophomore point guard Ronald Nored.
But you never know.
This was an opportunity of a lifetime.
“We were grateful to be here,” Mack said. “Because we don’t know if we’ll ever get back.”
Even if they do, it will never be like this.
Butler, playing down the street from Hinkle Fieldhouse, writing its own version of “Hoosiers” with the most unlikely ending — a national championship.
They may have started the season ranked, but few pegged them to be playing in the national championship game prior to the start of the season. Next season, if the Bulldogs return, they will do so as one of the favorites.
Butler battled toe-to-toe for the entire night with a Blue Devils team that boasted a half-dozen McDonald’s All-Americans on its roster. A Blue Devils team that was virtually hand-picked by Coach K and his staff to hang another championship banner.
It was a game that featured 15 lead changes. Hayward was just 2-for-11 from the field, Howard was yet again in foul trouble, Mack hurt his wrist again and was ineffective for the second half and Nored also spent much of the first half on the bench after picking up a pair of quick fouls. Yet the Bulldogs found a way — as they had done virtually all season after an 8-4 start.
There was not even a hint of an intimidation factor or nervousness throughout the game. Butler was no George Mason. These guys were for real and weren’t any one-year wonder.
“They were almost just like us,” Duke guard Nolan Smith said after the Blue Devils celebration. “The only difference is that they’re a mid-major.”
“They were us,” he added. “I know I’m not a mom or a parent, but I’m proud of them.”
The pride showed through in the Butler locker room beyond the disappointment of missing a golden opportunity.
“Whether the ball went in or not, we did something special,” Nored said.
There were tears, hugs and even a few smiles from the players. These kids appreciated what they have accomplished and so did much of the nation while embracing them for overcoming the odds.
Nored said that, for the most part, the locker room was subdued as the players remained in shock of what occurred.
Veasley broke down at one point when asked to reflect on what went through his head after the loss.
This was a Butler team that didn’t quite know how to handle losing because it had been so long. The Bulldogs entered the game riding a 25-game winning streak with its last setback coming in 2009 against UAB on Dec. 22.
“We never expected it to end this way,” Mack said.
With Hayward’s shot rising in the air from the right baseline, heading directly for the bottom of the net with everything on the line.