Running on empty, Duke finds emergency reserve in time to drain Michigan

April 07, 1992|By Bill Lyon | Bill Lyon,Philadelphia Inquirer

MINNEAPOLIS -- Emotionally spent, mentally exhausted, bloodied and limping, the Dukes of Dynasty will keep what they were sure was rightfully theirs all along:

The championship of college basketball.

In a flawed and frayed and desperately played game, against those young and hungry prodigies from Michigan, Duke shot poorly enough to lose, made more than enough turnovers to lose, got into enough foul trouble to lose.

And won anyway.

Won when they had every reason to lose.

Won going away.

Won despite not having their best stuff, and haven't we always heard that that is when the true identity of a champion is revealed?

And so for the first time in nearly a generation, roundball, semi-pro division, has a repeat champion.

Just when it looked like they were done, when they were running on empty canteens and on fumes, they found, as they always do, what they needed.

In the last seven minutes, when you were sure they couldn't make one more trip down that 94-foot highway to hell, they busted it open, shelling bewildered Michigan with a 23-6 closing salvo.

In the end, they were the ones with the young legs. They were the ones with bounce. They were the ones punctuating victory with warhead dunks.

Duke won because of the Hills, Thomas and Grant, springy slashers who defend and rebound and seem to materialize from somewhere over the backboard at the most opportune moments.

Duke won because Christian Laettner recovered from a wretched first half in which his turnovers (seven) outnumbered his points (five) and played a marvelous 20 closing minutes.

Duke won because Bobby Hurley, the raccoon-eyed gym rat who directs them, simply would not let the Devils lose. He was bleeding from both knees and was shackled with his fourth foul with nine minutes still to play. But for the seventh straight year, the tough little kid from St. Anthony in Jersey City played for, and won, a championship. The smallest player on the court, and maybe the most ferocious, was named the tournament's outstanding performer.

Duke won because, when everything else has deserted it, it still plays defense.

And mostly Duke won because it is so remarkably resourceful. Played to a standstill, it waited until there was just a crack, until it had that 48-45 lead with seven minutes left, and then the Devils adapted and adjusted.

It is what they do best.

It is what Michigan's youth prevents it from doing.

Duke changed the pace, began to work the clock, began to work on Michigan's impulsiveness, its natural impetuosity.

This time, experience beat youth.

It was a triumph of resiliency and resolve. Duke won this on will.

Oh, the Devils shot and rebounded, passed and defended, did all those rudimentary things, though not with their usual clinical efficiency, not with their usual polish and poise.

Not until those last seven minutes.

Not until it mattered.

But this is a title that was not so much won as it was not relinquished.

Duke simply wouldn't let go.

It is the fear of losing.

In sports, it is agreed, keeping a championship is far more difficult than getting a championship.

Last night, in a game that was assured of being historic even before it was played, the team of Tuesday beat the team of Wednesday.

They did it in spite of injury-depleted ranks. In fact, they may have done it "because" they were on short rations. The Dookies, see, have a way of using adversity to their advantage.

The losers, five freshmen, have this solace -- never before has a team so young advanced so far in this tournament. Maybe it will matter more to them later. Last night, though, they were teary and unconsolable.

But they are young. They will recover.

And recover is what Duke had done over and over and over during its spangled season. But all through the first half last night and well into the second, you had the sense that the Devils had flamed out at last, that it had all caught up with them, the grind of defending, the grind of a five-month, 36-game seasons, the unrelenting grind of having been ranked No. 1 since before the season began.

It's a lot to carry around.

"We became accustomed to the fact that everyone takes their best shots at us and that you've got to rejuvenate real quick," Mike Krzyzewski, Duke's coach, and a man of remarkable calm and forbearance, had said.

It turns out that was precisely what won it for them one more time. They were able to find fuel in a dry tank.

Michigan obviously took its defensive cue from Indiana in the semifinals and decided anyone on Duke could beat the Wolverines, anyone except Laettner.

Indiana had held Laettner to a career-low eight points -- and had been done in instead by Hurley, who pitched in 26.

So when Laettner, surrounded and hounded, was shackled the first half, Hurley again was there to spackle every crevice.

So Michigan concentrated on Hurley and Laettner exploded. Along with both the Hills.

The Dookies have too many answers. So, sooner or later, they find the right one.

And when it was won last night, when it got inside the last two minutes, when Antonio Lang jack-hammered home a dunk to make it 62-49, Krzyzewski indulged himself.

And revealed himself.

He leaped, this always-so-sedate man. He whirled, this always so-in-control man. And as he came down he punched the air once, twice, that composed face suddenly contorted into a passion and lip-curled intensity that was a little frightening.

It was at that point you realized just how much there is to the man.

And to his team.

And why it is they win.

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