DURHAM, N.C. -- Duke retired Christian Laettner's number and rediscovered Bobby Hurley all in the same passionate and bittersweet night.
The top-ranked Blue Devils got an unexpected lift from Hurley's early return to action last night as they slammed their way past Virginia 76-67 in hot and loud Cameron Indoor Stadium.
It was a critical victory for the Blue Devils (22-2, 12-2), who clinched at least a tie for the ACC regular season championship. They forged the triumph under a smothering set of conflicting emotions that swirled around Laettner's honor, Hurley's comeback, the loss of Grant Hill (sprained ankle) and the sense that Duke's season suddenly was heading toward the rocks.
But through it all, with the student section answering with wicked volume coach Mike Krzyzewski's plea for more emotion, the Blue Devils persevered with Laettner at the core.
With typical flair, Laettner scored 32 points to match the number on his retired jersey. "That was just a coincidence," Laettner said.
But the performance was much more than that. In a world Krzyzewski said had suddenly turned "wacko" on the Blue Devils, Laettner responded with an inspired effort that lifted his teammates and ultimately broke down the struggling Cavaliers.
It didn't start well when Laettner hit just one of his first eight shots. But as the game grew hotter, Laettner produced accordingly. He scored 14 first-half points while the Blue Devils edged to a 34-32 halftime lead. In the second half, Laettner seemed to be exactly where the Blue Devils needed at precisely the right time.
Duke had been unable to put the Cavaliers away midway through the second half until Laettner ignited an 11-0 run that decided the issue. Hurley had set the tone seconds earlier when he flashed his old form with a no-look pass to Brian Davis for a soaring dunk, but it was Laettner who broke the Cavaliers.
He started with a dunk off the baseline and, after a Thomas Hill layup, Laettner drained a three-pointer off a secondary break that forced Virginia to call a timeout trailing 58-47. The break TC didn't help; first Davis, then Laettner sliced inside the Virginia defense to shove Duke to a 62-47 lead with 7.24 left.
"Coming off Sunday's game [a loss at Wake Forest], the injury to Grant, Bobby's return and the emotion of everything, Christian was like a calming influence all the way," Krzyzewski said.
"How many big shots can he hit? He rebounded like crazy and he played with a passion. He played like the player of the year tonight."
Hurley's return came at a critical time for the Blue Devils, who found out early yesterday that Grant Hill, Hurley's replacement at the point the past three weeks, will miss at least two weeks and possibly four due to a sprained ankle suffered in practice Tuesday.