Duke, UM go for knockout

Rivalry: Having already fought three heavyweight battles, the Blue Devils and Terps are fortified for another classic tonight.

Ncaa Tournament

The Final Four

March 31, 2001|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

MINNEAPOLIS - They have created three of the more compelling college basketball gatherings of the year, and for the past two weeks, they have eyed each other from afar, while working their way closer to a confrontation on the game's grand stage.

How fitting that Maryland and Duke get to complete their season-within-a-season in this setting.

The Final Four deserves these two Atlantic Coast Conference combatants. They will add one final chapter to their trilogy tonight at the Metrodome in the NCAA tournament's semifinal round, with the winner advancing to Monday night's championship game.

Players talk religiously about not looking past their next opponent. But don't think that, once the selection committee unveiled its 65-team field on March 11, the Terps did not peek to see how they would get another crack at the Blue Devils.

"We knew Duke would probably be the team to come out of the East. They had a pretty nice path set up to get here," said Maryland sophomore forward Tahj Holden, whose Terps (25-10) were the best in the West as the third seed. Top-ranked Duke (33-4) took care of business as a No. 1 seed.

"I think we were looking for this a little bit," Holden added. "We've played them tough before, and now we've got them on the big stage. We know them, they know us. I don't think it could get any better."

They last met three weeks ago in the ACC tournament semifinals, in easily the best game of the weekend and of their three-game series. Duke survived a pulsating, second-half comeback by Maryland, right down to a last-second, 40-foot shot by Juan Dixon, who missed a game-winning miracle by inches, as the Terps fell, 84-82.

Dixon and Shane Battier, Duke's national Player of the Year, embraced on the court in the aftermath. Battier told Dixon they would meet again in the Final Four.

And now they are here, these two opponents that already have fashioned two entries worthy of ESPN Instant Classic replays.

It's hard to envision tonight's installment failing to live up to the hype that has inflated it all week.

You have the nation's two most prolific offenses going at it. Duke averages 90.8 points; Maryland 85.2. You have the game's best duo in the same uniform in Battier and point guard Jason Williams, who has scored 115 points in four tournament games.

You have Dixon, who has been the constant, driving force in Maryland's roller-coaster year. It featured a 1-3 start and a midseason slump - started by that infamous, overtime loss to Duke at Cole Field House on Jan. 27 - that threatened to deny the Terps their eighth straight trip to the NCAAs. You have Lonny Baxter, the most dominant post player in the tournament. And point guard Steve Blake, one of the few to bottle up Williams.

You have Maryland coach Gary Williams, making his first trip to the Final Four without a ticket, after toiling for 23 seasons, the last 12 in College Park.

And you have Williams' nemesis, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, who has brought the Blue Devils to their ninth Final Four in search of their third national title, all under him.

Maryland is 1-2 against the Blue Devils, having whipped Duke by 11 points on senior night at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Feb. 27. The Terps, who easily could have been 3-0 in this series, are facing the same team four times in one year for the first time. Williams has never beaten Coach K twice in the same season.

But the Terps show no fear of any Duke mystique. Given up by many for dead after tumbling to a 15-9 record in mid-February with an embarrassing home loss to Florida State that culminated a 1-5 skid, Maryland already has come back from the grave. The Terps are on a 10-1 roll, having beaten seven ranked opponents, including top-ranked Stanford by 14 points in last week's West Regional final.

"I hear a lot of people talking about how we're the underdogs because this is our first time here," Dixon said. "We've gone through a lot of stuff this year, and we've stayed strong. I don't feel any butterflies. I feel great. This shouldn't bother us."

"We're in a good mental frame," Gary Williams said. "We're very confident without being cocky. We respect Duke probably more than anyone else. But at the same time, we feel we can go out on the court and play with them.

"We're not tired. The old coach might be tired, but when you're 18, 22 years old and you're in the Final Four, well, we've got to keep these guys under control. This is exciting."

In their first meeting, the Terps took control of Duke midway through the first half, led by an outstanding bench that has been part of their backbone all year. Maryland was almost on cruise control, posting a double-digit lead. Blake was a nightmare for Williams, forcing him into 10 turnovers.

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