CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Forget, for a moment, all the talk about repeating. For yesterday, as throughout this year's Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, all the Duke basketball team seemed concerned with was re-peaking.
Though they never lost their No. 1 ranking this season, the Blue Devils appeared to slip noticeably after losing Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill last month to injuries. Hurley and Hill are back, and so apparently is Duke.
If victories here over Maryland and Georgia Tech weren't convincing enough, maybe the way the top-seeded Blue Devils routed 20th-ranked North Carolina, 94-74, in the tournament's championship game at Charlotte Coliseum was evidence that the best team in the country is back on its game.
Just in time for the NCAA tournament.
"We played intelligently and aggressively," said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, whose Blue Devils later were selected as the No. 1 seed in the East and will open their defense of the national championship Thursday in Greensboro, N.C. "We played like champions, and that's why we won."
The one-sided outcome matched the win here by the Tar Heels last year, nearly down to the final score. It marked the first ACC tournament title for Duke, which has reached the Final Four five of the last six years, winning the national championship last season.
It was especially satisfying for senior center Christian Laettner. A year ago, Laettner got so frustrated with the way Duke played that he was called for a technical foul after yelling obscenities at an official. Yesterday, Laettner took out his frustration on North Carolina (21-9).
"It means a lot to us," said Laettner, the tournament MVP, who finished with game-high totals of 25 points, 10 rebounds and seven steals. "Like everyone said a million times, it's something we hadn't gotten. Now, we have. It's something we can put under our belts. I've already put it under mine. This is a steppingstone to the NCAA tournament."
A launching pad might be more precise. The Blue Devils began to break open the game in the last seven minutes of the first half. Trailing 28-26, they went on an 18-8 run that began and ended with Laettner hitting three-point shots. Duke (28-2) then scored on 11 of its first 12 possessions of the second half to open a 17-point lead that eventually grew to 21.
If it wasn't Laettner hitting threes -- he made five in eight attempts yesterday -- it was Bobby Hurley penetrating North Carolina's defense for 11 points and 11 assists. Or it was Grant Hill coming off the bench for 20 points on eight-of-eight shooting, including a couple of monster dunks, as well as seven assists. Or Tony Lang hitting the offensive boards. Or Thomas Hill hitting his soft lefthanded jumper. Or Brian Davis slowing down North Carolina's Hubert Davis.
"I didn't think Duke could play better than they did last week in Durham [last Sunday]," said North Carolina coach Dean Smith, who lost to the Blue Devils for the second time in seven ACC finals. "But they did today."
There is talk that the Blue Devils might be better than they were in January, just before Hurley broke a bone in his foot during a one-point loss at North Carolina. That was also before Grant Hill sprained his ankle, and Duke lost at Wake Forest.
"We played them three times, and they're stronger now," said Smith.
To remind his team how they played earlier in the season, Krzyzewski showed the players a tape Friday night of a victory over Georgia Tech at Durham on Jan. 11, a game when the Blue Devils built a 27-point lead and won easily. It was an invigorating memory.
Yesterday's victory merely got Duke ready to defend its national championship. The Blue Devils will try to become the first repeat champions in nearly 20 years, since UCLA won in 1972 and 1973.
But don't talk to these guys about repeating. Just re-peaking.