PHILADELPHIA -- They are the overlooked starters on the nation's No. 1 college basketball team, swallowed up on the periphery of the spotlight following Duke's stars.
But Tony Lang, Brian Davis and Thomas Hill have played important parts for the Blue Devils in their run for a second straight national championship. Just ask Seton Hall.
With the Pirates putting the clamps on Christian Laettner for most of the second half and on Bobby Hurley for most of the game, it was left to Duke's role players to play major roles in last night's 81-69 victory in the NCAA East Regional semifinals at The Spectrum.
The win put the Blue Devils into tomorrow's 7 p.m. regional final against Kentucky (29-6), which nearly blew a 21-point lead earlier in the night before holding off Massachusetts, 87-77. The winner will advance to next week's Final Four in Minneapolis.
"I think we played really well to beat them, and it took everyone to do it," said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.
While Laettner scored 12 of his 16 points before halftime and Hurley was held to four, the other three starters combined for 44 points. Lang had a career-high 16, Davis added 15 and Hill 13. Grant Hill scored 13 off the bench for the Blue Devils.
When Laettner and Grant Hill got into a bit of foul trouble midway through the first half and the Pirates chipped an eight-point deficit to two, it was Davis and Lang who helped Duke to a 38-32 lead at halftime. When Seton Hall (23-9) twice got it back to two early in the second half, it was Thomas Hill and Davis who sparked a 17-6 run for a 61-48 lead.
And, when the Pirates made one last charge to pull within 64-58, it was Davis who made a couple of free throws and a driving layup for a 68-60 lead. By the time Laettner and Hurley got into the act, the Blue Devils had things under control.
"I thought Tony set the tone for the whole game when he scored a couple of early baskets for us," said Hurley, who struggled in his first meeting with younger brother Danny, but managed to break the NCAA tournament record for assists. "They were playing very physically against Christian and me."
Said Seton Hall coach P.J. Carlesimo, "If I had to single out anybody for them, it had be Tony Lang. He posted up the first two times he got the ball. He rebounded over the top of us all night. He played especially well. It was the kind of game for role players."
Seton Hall's principal role player, Gordon Winchester, finished with a career-high 20 points to go along with eight rebounds. Lang made four of four from the field and, despite one air ball late in the game, was eight of 10 from the free-throw line. The 6-7 sophomore also led the Blue Devils with seven rebounds.
The kind of game Lang played last night might need to be repeated if Duke hopes to become the first repeat NCAA champion since UCLA in 1972-73. But since moving into the starting lineup after Grant Hill sprained his ankle last month, Lang has demonstrated that he can be a front-line player.
"I didn't go in expecting to score," said Lang. "Defensively, they were concentrating on Christian, and I was able to take advantage. Hopefully, they'll keep concentrating on Christian, and I'll continue to score."
Said Krzyzewski: "Tony's just more confident, and we have the ultimate confidence in Tony. What impressed me was after he missed that free throw -- I think he burped -- he didn't even look at the bench, and then he made the next one. That shows a lot of maturity."
The same is true for the Blue Devils. No matter what the challenge, they seem to fight it off. No matter what style of play the opposition tries, Duke merely plays it better. One more victory and the Blue Devils will be headed to their fifth straight Final Four.
"I think we have to leave last year behind," said Lang, who barely played on last season's team by the time the NCAA tournament began. "If we keep going after it hard, we have a good chance."
With stars named Laettner, Hurley and Grant Hill, and some pretty good role players.