MINNEAPOLIS -- Defense returned to Duke last night at the Metrodome. So did Bobby Hurley, at least the Hurley who helped lead the Blue Devils to a national championship last season. As a result, the nation's top-ranked team will return to championship game of the NCAA tournament for the third straight year.
But it didn't come easily for Duke.
After trailing Indiana by 12 points midway through in the first half, and leading by 13 midway though the second half, Duke survived a last-minute three-point blitz by a heretofore unknown Hoosiers guard and made enough free throws to escape with a shaky 81-78 victory before 50,379.
The win put the Blue Devils into tomorrow night's final against Michigan, which beat Cincinnati earlier in the evening, 76-72. Duke will try to become the first team to win back-to-back NCAA DTC titles since UCLA in 1972-73, but will likely have to do it without senior forward Brian Davis, who suffered a badly sprained ankle against the Hoosiers.
"I thought it was a very tough game," said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. "I thought they played better than we did in the first half and we played better than they did in the second half."
Hurley, who struggled at last week's East Regional in Philadelphia, saved Duke (33-2) by being better than anybody. The junior point kept the Blue Devils within breathing distance when Indiana (27-7) threatened to break open the game early, and sparked Duke at both ends of the floor on an 18-0 run that seemingly put the Hoosiers out of game.
While Hurley tied a career-high with 26 points, including a school-record six three-pointers, Christian Laettner was held to a season-low eight points. The senior center was held to single figures for the first time in 47 games, but managed to pull down 10 rebounds and give the Blue Devils a lift defensively in the second half.
"That was the focal point of our defense," Indiana center Eric Anderson said of stopping Laettner, who had been averaging close to 22 points. "But Bobby Hurley was on fire. It was too difficult to defend both aspects of the game."
While Hurley made seven of 12 overall, including six of nine three-pointers, he was downright cool compared with Todd Leary. A sophomore reserve who had played sparingly for the Hoosiers this season, Leary came off the bench after four Indiana players fouled out and nearly brought his team into overtime.
Three straight three-pointers by Leary helped cut what had been a 60-47 lead to 77-73 with 27 seconds remaining. After a free throw by reserve guard Marty Clark gave Duke a five-point lead, Indiana center Matt Nover made a pair of free throws to trim the Blue Devils' lead to 78-75 with 26 seconds to go.
"I'm not sure I've seen a kid light a match that became an explosion," said Indiana coach Bob Knight, whose own explosion led to a technical foul early in the second half.
The Hoosiers had a chance when Hurley and Laettner got crossed up on the ensuing inbounds pass, but Jamal Meeks missed a three-point try with 13 seconds to go.
"I didn't think the ball was going to come around to my side so quickly, and I didn't get my feet set," said Meeks.
Antonio Lang then made a pair of free throws for the Blue Devils, who had missed 15 of 25 free throws in the second half. Nover hit a three-point shot for Indiana to cut Duke's lead to two, 80-78, but Cherokee Parks hit the first of two free throws with a second left and Alan Henderson's full-court heave fell 10 feet short as the buzzer went off.
After Henderson scored for the Hoosiers to cut Duke's lead to six, 67-61 -- Henderson picked up his fifth foul and became the second of four players to foul out for Indiana -- Grant Hill then made a pair of free throws with a little over two minutes left.
But Hill fouled Greg Graham on a three-point try with 1:44 to go -- it was Hill's fifth as well -- and the Hoosiers closed to within five, 69-64, as the Indiana guard made all three free throws.
Duke, obviously worn out, gave Indiana another chance when Hurley lost the ball. The Hoosiers, however, helped out as Calbert Cheaney missed a wild shot and reserve guard Marty Clark made a pair of free throws for Duke with 1:27 to go.
After a turnover by the Hoosiers, Hurley was fouled with 1:16 to go. The junior guard made both free throws to put the Blue Devils comfortably ahead by nine. Duke kept committing silly fouls, as Laettner hacked Eric Anderson, who missed the front end of a one-and-one.