Duke edges Butler, 61-59

It was a storybook finish for Brian Zoubek.

Something of a punch line for most of his four-year career at Duke, the light suddenly went on midway through his senior season. The game slowed down for the 7’1″ center and he quickly became a force defensively and on the glass.

And he needed every inch of that big frame tonight. With just seconds remaining and Duke nursing a one-point lead, Butler’s best player, Gordon Hayward, drove into the lane. Zoubek helped off his man and forced Hayward into a difficult fadeaway jumper along the baseline that was a few inches too long. Zoubek was in the right spot to collect the rebound, and after a quick Butler foul, he had to make the long walk to the other end of the court to shoot a pair of free throws.

Having shot just 55% on the season, Zoubek nailed his first attempt to give Duke a two-point lead. He was then told by his coach to intentionally miss the second* so that Butler would have to gather the rebound and drive the length of the floor to attempt a game-winning shot from half court. Hayward did just that, and once again missed by a few inches. The shot hit the backboard and clanged off the front of the rim.

Just like that, Brian Zoubek became a national champion.

Duke’s “Big Three” — Kyle Singler (19 points, 9 rebounds, 3 blocks), Jon Scheyer (15 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists) and Nolan Smith (13 points, 4 assists, 3 rebounds) — certainly deserve much of the credit, but the Blue Devils would not have won the title tonight without the play of their big men, and Zoubek led the way. His eight points and 11 boards were huge; his play was especially noticeable in the second half when Duke only yielded two offensive rebounds. (Butler had 10 offensive rebounds in the first half.)

Butler’s man-to-man defense was outstanding. The Blue Devils committed 13 turnovers and shot just 29% from long range. But Duke’s defense was just as good, forcing the Bulldogs into 35% shooting.

It was a back-and-forth, white knuckle affair. Just when it looked like Duke might pull away, the Bulldogs would make a couple of plays to cut the lead back to one. It was just a great, great game.

* This is a decision that I don’t agree with when there is 3+ seconds remaining — I’d rather go up three and have the worst-case scenario be overtime.

Photo from fOTOGLIF

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