MINNEAPOLIS - For the second straight game in the Final Four, the Duke juggernaut was stuck in neutral. The Blue Devils were taking it on the chin, big-time.
Jason Williams and Shane Battier missed 10 of their first 16 shots. Towering Arizona center Loren Woods scored 13 points in the opening 20 minutes, and probably should have doubled that total. The Blue Devils were getting hammered on the backboards.
It was the first half of the Maryland game all over again, except for the fact that Arizona wasn't shooting lights-out. Duke actually led at halftime.
We should have known by now that Duke had the Wildcats right where they wanted them.
On the biggest stage in college basketball, Duke, the best program in the country over the last decade, won a game it expected to win all along. The Blue Devils crunched Arizona 82-72 last night at the Metrodome, winning their third NCAA championship. They also won in 1991 and 1992.
The Blue Devils won for several reasons, but they captured their first title in nine years primarily because they played stifling, amoeba-like defense. They hog-tied Arizona's guards and dared the big men to win the game for the Wildcats.
Duke's defense created the tempo, setting the table for its high-octane offense. The Blue Devils grabbed the game by the throat on the strength of some gutty perimeter shooting by sophomore Mike Dunleavy.
The surprise star on a team of stars, Dunleavy scored 18 of his team-high 21 points in the second half.
It's become the trademark of Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski to come up with something new and different each year.
The Blue Devils always have been an excellent defensive team under Krzyzewski. Entering the Final Four, Duke's opponents were shooting 41 percent.
This year the change occurred at the offensive end, where the Blue Devils became masters of the own destiny via the 3-pointer.
With Duke ahead 40-37 early in the second half, Dunleavy swished a 3-pointer for a six-point lead.
On Duke's next trip, Dunleavy drilled another 3-pointer. Twenty seconds later, Dunleavy bagged yet another triple for a 49-39 advantage.
Arizona responded by playing its most inspired basketball all night, rallying to within 50-48. Time for Duke to answer by running the offense through Williams or Battier, right?
Dunleavy received the call again, and once again he answered, scoring six consecutive points. Then, following a Carlos Boozer slam, Dunleavy drained still another 3-pointer for a 61-51 lead.
Battier finished with 18 points and 11 rebounds in his final college game for Duke. But it was the incredibly poised play of Dunleavy and Williams, a pair of sophomores, along with freshman Chris Duhon down the stretch that finalized the victory.
When Arizona clawed back once again to make it 68-65, Duhon, far from acting like a scared kid, drove to the basket and lofted an agonizingly difficult bank shot over the 7-foot Woods, drawing the foul from Woods and converting the 3-point play for a 71-65 lead.
Finally, with Arizona needing a defensive stop in the worst way to have any chance of winning the game, Williams buried a killer 3-pointer giving Duke an 80-72 lead.
Dunleavy. Duhon. Williams.
Tomorrow, the future, has become the now for Duke.
John Harris is a Blade sports columnist. E-mail him at email@example.com.
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