Duke tips over valiant UM

Blake's 3 caps rally, but James' follow drops Terps, 84-82

Round 3 another classic

Unbowed Terps told `see you in Final 4'

March 11, 2001|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA - When it was over, when two exhausted, prideful, outstanding teams began to stagger off the floor, just after a nearly miraculous shot by Maryland guard Juan Dixon missed by inches and allowed Duke to survive, Dixon had an exchange with possibly college basketball's premier player.

Duke senior forward Shane Battier sought out Dixon immediately. The two hugged, and Battier delivered some heartfelt words to the Maryland junior.

"He told me that we're a great team and that I was a great player," Dixon said. "And he said `See you in the Final Four.' "

Maybe these two combatants are destined for Minneapolis, this year's stage for college basketball's annual grand event. Maybe they can find a way to top the trilogy of memorable battles they have created the past six weeks.

One thing seems certain. When Duke (28-4) and North Carolina renew their storied Tobacco Road rivalry in today's ACC tournament title game at the Georgia Dome, they will not be able to match the drama of yesterday's pulsating, 84-82 Duke victory over the Terrapins.

It was a semifinal contest that merged theater with basketball. It was - dare we say - an instant classic.

Look at these ingredients. There was No. 11 Maryland, boasting a six-game winning streak and looking like potential tournament champions for the first time in 17 years, taking early command by scoring the game's first 10 points, then letting it slip away under a torrent of its own turnovers and a barrage of three-point baskets from the most explosive offense in the land.

There was No. 3 Duke, moving out to a 61-47 lead five minutes into the second half, only to have Maryland display the heart of a champion while staging a stirring comeback, which point guard Steve Blake completed with a 23-foot shot from the top of the key that tied the score at 82 with 8.1 seconds left.

That was merely a warm-up for a classic final scene. After Blake's three-point shot, Blue Devils point guard Jason Williams pushed the ball up the court, down the middle of the lane and missed a runner. Senior forward Nate James, who had struggled so badly in recent weeks that he lost his starting job, leaped and tipped in the miss to give Duke the lead with 1.3 seconds left.

And that set the stage for Dixon. He took a baseball pass from teammate Terence Morris, dribbled quickly across the half-court line and heaved a 40-footer that hit the rim and bounced to the left as the final horn sounded.

"I thought Dixon's shot was in. It was right on line," said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who had a perfect view of the release from the Blue Devils' bench.

"That was one of the best games I've ever been a part of in this tournament. Maryland is one of the top four or five teams in the country, and in Juan Dixon, they have truly one of the best players in the country. That kid is a warrior. I would love to coach Juan Dixon."

The Terps (21-10) probably will have to settle for a No. 3 or No. 4 seed when tonight's NCAA tournament pairings are announced. Duke most likely secured a No. 1 seed with the victory.

But the post-game Maryland locker room did not portray grief or disappointment.

Yes, the Terps wished they had not committed 20 turnovers on a day when they manhandled Duke on the boards, grabbing 48 rebounds to the Blue Devils' 27. Yes, Dixon (team-high 17 points) would love to have back a few of his 13 missed shots in 20 attempts. Yes, it pained Maryland that backups Casey Sanders and Matt Christensen - subbing for injured center Carlos Boozer (foot fracture) - hurt them with 10 first-half points.

And yet, the Terps sounded unwavering in their confidence about the days that lie ahead.

"This is like a new beginning, the second part of the season," said Morris, who finished with 12 points and seven rebounds. "We're playing well enough right now that, hopefully, we can get far enough and [Duke] can get far enough [in the national tournament], and we'll see each other again."

"I think we bring out the best in each other. Two competitive teams, two competitive coaches going at it," said Dixon, who practices half-court shots daily in practice. "[The shot] looked good and felt good when it left my hand. I knew it had a chance. We just came up short in the last second today."

The usual suspects pushed Duke over the top in this, the rubber match between two heavyweights. Maryland had evened the score 12 days ago in Durham, N.C., with a gritty, come-from-behind, 91-80 victory, one month after falling apart in the final minute of regulaton and losing a 98-96 overtime decision at Cole Field House to the Blue Devils. That game has been replayed several times.

"It's under our contract with ESPN. We're allowed to provide a certain number of ESPN Classics every year," quipped Battier, who led Duke with 20 points and made three of the Blue Devils' 12 three-point baskets.

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