- The Washington Times - Monday, March 29, 2004

ATLANTA — Chris Duhon sat at his locker, wearing a championship cap and a net around his neck.

Now, that’s more like it for Duke.

With history on their side, the Blue Devils ended Xavier’s remarkable run in the NCAA tournament and headed to their 14th Final Four, holding off the Musketeers 66-63 yesterday to win the Atlanta regional.

Xavier already had cut down the second- and third-seeded teams in the region but couldn’t make it 1-2-3. At the end, it was the Blue Devils cutting down the nets at the Georgia Dome.

“This is probably my favorite team since I’ve been at Duke,” said Duhon, the senior point guard who was part of the 2001 national championship team as a freshman. “It’s an amazing feeling to go out and battle with these guys. I hope they enjoy it as much as I have.”

The Blue Devils (31-5) had been eliminated the last two years in the round of 16. No slip-ups this time — the Blue Devils are the only No.1 seed to reach San Antonio and will play Connecticut on Saturday in the national semifinals.

“This is something I’ve been dreaming about,” Duke sophomore Shelden Williams said. “When you go to bed at night, you have the same dream over and over till it happens.”

The seventh-seeded Musketeers had never been this far in the tournament, and it showed in the closing minutes against postseason-hardened Duke.

With the score tied at 56-56, Duhon drove to the basket and missed, but freshman Luol Deng grabbed the offensive rebound and passed out to J.J. Redick, who swished the 3-pointer that put the Blue Devils ahead for good with 2:55 remaining.

Xavier couldn’t overcome the loss of Anthony Myles, its best inside player, who fouled out with 12 minutes remaining after scoring 16 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. His absence was especially telling in the deciding minutes.

“You’ve got to play with what you’ve got,” Lionel Chalmers said. “But it definitely added up.”

After Redick’s 3-pointer, 6-foot-1 Dedrick Finn drove the lane, only to have his shot swatted away by the 6-9 Williams. Duhon sped the other way and missed again, but Deng soared above the rim to tap in the rebound, giving the Blue Devils a five-point lead with 1:55 to go.

“The tip-in basket was one of the greatest plays we’ve had all year,” Duhon said.

Justin Doellman finally scored for the Musketeers, their first basket in nearly 4 minutes, but Duke closed it out at the free throw line. Redick hit a pair. So did Duhon, the only prominent holdover from Duke’s last national championship team.

Playing with sore ribs, Duhon scored just six points but was a stopper on defense. Chalmers led Xavier with 17 points but made just six of 16 shots. His backcourt partner, Romain Sato, was held to 10 points on 2-for-10 shooting.

Much of the time, Duhon was the guy guarding them.

“Whatever player was hot, I put [Duhon] on, and he became not hot,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “The kid’s a winner, and I was glad to be able to ride his bus.”

Deng had 19 points and was named the most outstanding player of the regional. Williams also came up big, scoring 12 points to go along with 13 rebounds and five blocks.

Xavier (26-11) failed to become the first team since LSU in 1986 to reach the Final Four by knocking out the top three seeds in a region. Duke is a virtual lock when it gets to this point, improving to 10-1 in regional finals under Krzyzewski.

The Blue Devils will be seeking their fourth national title at the Alamodome next weekend.

“Only one team goes,” Krzyzewski said. “We’re fortunate to be that team.”

Xavier was just 10-9 at the end of January and in danger of missing the tournament but turned things around after Chalmers went off on his teammates following a 21-point loss at George Washington.

The Musketeers won the Atlantic 10 tournament — ending Saint Joseph’s perfect season with a 20-point victory — and kept things rolling in the NCAAs. They knocked off Louisville in the opening round, upset No. 2 seed Mississippi State 89-74 to reach the round of 16, then made it to a regional final for the first time with a 79-71 win over No. 3 seed Texas.

That’s where the thrilling ride ended for a school that struggles for attention in its own city, competing with the Cincinnati Bearcats.

Xavier took a devastating blow when Myles picked up his fourth and fifth fouls just six seconds apart. He was first whistled during a scrum for position with Williams.

Coach Thad Matta motioned for Brandon Cole to get in the game, but he didn’t make it to the table in time. Redick got off a quick 3-pointer, and Myles got nailed again while battling with Williams for the rebound under the basket.

Myles hopped away in disbelief, then retreated to the bench, covering his face with a towel while his teammates tried to get by without him.

“We were trying to get him out,” Matta said. “I guess we were a little slow, and they got the ball in pretty quick.”

Still, the Musketeers showed admirable grit, holding a 56-53 lead with less than six minutes to go. But Deng hit a 3 to tie it, made two more huge plays to help put his team ahead, and Xavier finally wore down.

“Luol is not a freshman anymore,” teammate Daniel Ewing said. “He’s stepped up for us numerous times. Big-time players step up in big situations.”

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