In the final minutes of Duke University's 61-59 win over Butler University, I was actually having some minor respiratory problems. There's nothing medically wrong with me (knock on government-provided therapeutic wood), it's just that I simply forgot to breathe at times. These oversights are bound to happen, especially during incredible finishes of NCAA championship games.
Duke was up by one at halftime. And what a goofy half it was; Butler was surprisingly outrebounding the Blue Devils and Bulldogs senior Avery Jukes, a little-used reserve, was the team's leading scorer with 10 points.
Still, though, there was no way Butler would keep this up, right? Yet somehow they did. Once Duke was up by five with 2:30 left with the ball, it again seemed like a foregone conclusion that Kyle Singler or somebody would drain a three and the dream would die an agonizing death, (perhaps by asphyxiation).
It didn't happen then either. And I fully blame Matt Howard for my acute asthmatic symptoms.
Howard, Butler's decently-sized but hack-happy junior forward, was silent for most of the first half and sporadically sat on the bench because of foul trouble. But he never relented. In the final two minutes, he compensated for some of his missed layups with an incredible offensive rebound and subsequent put-back. That and another one of his layups hewed the five-point lead down to one in the final minute.
Pant. Pant. Where's my inhaler? Oh crap, I don't have one.
In the final three minutes, Duke only attempted two shots, neither one going in. And as circumstance would have it, Butler would have what could've been the final shot. Down one, they gave it to Gordon Heyward, their perhaps-NBA-bound sophomore leader, who drove to his right and launched a high-arcing fade-away shot that seemed to hover in mid-air forever before bouncing off the rim and into the hands of Duke's Ivan Drago of rebounds and fouls, Brian Zoubek, who himself was hacked in desperation.
With 3.6 seconds left, he could not ice the game, but nonetheless drained the first free throw. 'Twas a two point lead. His second attempt intentionally doinked off the iron, landing in the arms of — oh, guess who — Heyward.
He began dribbling around some stationary Duke players, none of whom wanted to be the guy eternally ostracized for fouling at this juncture. (Replays showed Howard completely laying out Singler on a pick-bodyslam hybrid during this series of events.)
Heyward traversed halfcourt and heaved up a 40-foot prayer for the win. Buzzer. Off the backboard. Off the rim.
It was the gut punch I needed to properly begin using my lungs.
In the end Heyward had two incredibly tough shots to capture a national championship for Butler. With higher stakes than merely upsetting a 1-seed or reaching the Final Four, such baskets need to be converted. And nobody faults Heyward for not making them, although, given how the tournament went, nobody would've been surprised if his last-second heave would have swished through the twine.
The despised superior team wins most of the time for a reason. In that regard, one could say that this was the final "upset" in a bevy of strange games over the past three weeks. While millions of casual sports fans may be dejected over who won, the fact that the tournament is finally over will be very healthy for their tracheae.