April 6, 2010

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -Life is never going to be quite the same for the little guys.

Butler may have lost to Duke 61-59 in the national title game Monday night. By hanging with Duke and making the Blue Devils work for every last bit of their fourth national title, though, the Bulldogs reminded everyone that heart, not size or status, is what matters most.

As Gordon Hayward's desperation 3-pointer clanged off the rim and confetti began dropping from the ceiling, Matt Howard collapsed at halfcourt and covered his face in his hands, coming so agonizingly close two days after being knocked loopy against Michigan State.

It wasn't quite 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. But Butler's run will be one for the ages.

"We do have something bigger than basketball," guard Ronald Nored said. "This will only take us so far, and we have a lifetime to enjoy it."

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.

But Butler 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. There are no athletic dorms and, yes, those were some of the Butler players spotted in the classroom Monday morning.

It's the way they play that most charmed people, though. The Bulldogs call it "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.

"Somebody that is a team-first person, that accepts responsibility, accountable for their actions," coach Brad Stevens said before the game when asked to define it. "I think those are all things that lend to a successful program."

Almost got the Bulldogs (33-5) a national title, too.

Duke's Big Three - Kyle Singler, Jon Scheyer and Nolan Smith - combined for 47 points, and the Blue Devils were the first to get 60 points off of Butler in more than a month. But the Bulldogs were relentless, forcing Duke to put up 3s that had no chance - the Blue Devils were 5 of 17 from 3-point range - or burn almost the entire shot clock before getting a decent look.

And despite a considerable size advantage - Duke center Brian Zoubek is 7-1 while Butler "center" Howard is 6-8 - Duke had only two more rebounds, and the Bulldogs won the battle on the offensive glass, 14 to 11.

But Duke knows a thing or two about defense, too, and the Bulldogs couldn't overcome yet another woeful shooting night. Two days after going 15 of 49 against Michigan State, the Bulldogs were almost as bad, making 20 of 58 (34.5 percent) against the Blue Devils.

Hayward, Butler's best pro prospect, was limited to 12 points on 2-of-11 shooting. Shelvin Mack 12 and Howard, who played two days after suffering a concussion in a hard collision with Michigan State, finished with 11. Avery Jukes, better known for his foundation that benefits Ugandan kids than his shooting, contributed 10. It was just the third time this season he'd cracked the double-digit mark, but he was scoreless in the second half.

The Bulldogs took a 43-42 lead on a 3-pointer by Ronald Nored with 13:36 left. But Singler made yet another 3 - he was 3 of 6 from long range - and Duke never trailed again.

Howard, playing with four fouls, pulled Butler within 60-59 with a layup with 55 seconds left. Singler missed at the other end and Nored came up with the rebound. But Hayward missed a jumper and Zoubek got the rebound. Zoubek was fouled by Mack and made the first, screaming as the ball dropped through the net.

He intentionally missed the second and Hayward got the rebound with three seconds left. But his long 3 missed, bringing an end to Butler's wonderful ride. Also ended was Butler's 25-game winning streak, which had been the longest in the country.

"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."