MINNEAPOLIS -- Duke looked on the verge of burnout in last night's NCAA championship game against Michigan at the Metrodome. The Blue Devils' emotions seemed as flat as their shots, their chance at making history fading with exhaustion.
But just as quickly, burnout became blowout for the defending national champions, and a sloppily played game turned brilliant for the Blue Devils. And just as quickly, Michigan disappeared, as the "Fab Five" showed its age. In the end, Duke showed its Final Four experience.
The result was a surprisingly easy 71-51 victory for the Blue Devils. What Nevada-Las Vegas couldn't do last year, what Georgetown couldn't do in 1985, what UCLA couldn't do when its college basketball dynasty was interrupted by North Carolina State in 1974, Duke did.
With the victory, the Blue Devils became the first team to successfully repeat as national champions since the Bruins finished their unlikely-to-be-matched run of seven straight titles in 1973. They were also the first team since North Carolina in 1982 to stay No. 1 the entire season.
"I'm happy," said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. "This has been )) the most gratifying year I've ever had as a coach, culminating with this win. It has just been incredible coaching these guys. I feel we deserve it; we've been ranked No. 1 all year. This is the best group I've ever worked with. They really deserve it."
Said junior forward Thomas Hill: "I'm in awe of what this team was able to do. We did something that a lot of great teams couldn't do."
That Duke (34-2) was able to defend its championship was impressive. But it took the Blue Devils nearly 35 minutes to resemble the team that dominated at times this season. A 23-6 run in the final 5:41 put the game away.
Though Bobby Hurley never found his range, he never lost his spunk. Though Hurley didn't hit like he had against Indiana (a career-high 26 points) in the semifinals, finishing three of 12 from the field, the junior point guard's scathing halftime talk fired up his teammates -- especially Christian Laettner.
"Bobby came in and said that if we can't go hard for another 20 minutes, we don't deserve the national championship," said Hill, who added a few choice words himself. "We needed someone to push us, aside from the coaches."
Said Hurley, who was named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player, "I thought we needed something to get us going, especially Christian."
Hurley's halftime talk worked on Laettner, who, after a miserable first half (five points on two of eight shooting, seven turnovers, two rebounds), began to assert himself. He scored the first two times Duke had the ball, once on a drive after a pass from Hurley and then on a three-pointer.
The Blue Devils, who trailed at halftime by just 31-30, despite making 12 turnovers and shooting 12 of 30 from the field, took the lead for good on Laettner's three-pointer. But Duke couldn't didn't pull away, even though Michigan's top two freshmen, Chris Webber and Jalen Rose, were in foul trouble.
"Their defense was good, but I just wasn't making my shots," said Laettner, who finished with 19 points, seven rebounds and
no second-half turnovers. "I finally made some
shots, and after that my confidence came back."
Michigan coach Steve Fisher, whose team of five freshman starters was denied its place in college basketball lore, said: "I felt good about our chances at halftime. I'm sure Duke was saying the same thing. But in the second half it was difficult to get our shots off. We struggled to get good shots and when we did, they didn't fall. That happens against a great team like Duke."
Duke's defense carried the Blue Devils for nearly the entire game. After scoring on a layup to give his team a 50-45 lead, Laettner got in front of Webber for a steal. Grant Hill made a reverse dunk, and the run was on, as Michigan (25-9) was held to 20 points in the second half. The Wolverines' 51 points were a season low.
The one scary moment for Duke came when Hurley, playing with four fouls from the 11-minute mark of the second half, came close to picking up his fifth while going for a steal with 4:03 to play and Duke up nine. The ball squirted away from Ray Jackson, no foul was called, and the Blue Devils continued their march to the championship.
"I think when we started to see it go from three to five to seven to nine, we might have taken some ill-advised shots," said Fisher. "We shot the ball a little too quickly."
And Duke, looking as it did earlier this season, continued to roll up the points. A tip-in by Grant Hill, who finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds, made it 60-49. That was followed by a dunk by Antonio Lang, a free throw by Thomas Hill, two free throws by Hurley and two dunks by Grant Hill to open a 20-point lead.
"We've had trouble putting teams away in the tournament, and we kept saying we couldn't let them back in," said Grant Hill. "It was nice to see that big lead in the last minute."