- The Washington Times - Monday, April 2, 2007

Love ‘em or hate ‘em — and most fans in the Washington area hate ‘em — the Duke Blue Devils have epitomized success in men’s basketball for a long time now. But it wasn’t always that way.

Duke failed to win a national championship in its first eight trips to the Final Four, losing four times in the semifinals and four times in the title game. But that all changed on April Fool’s night 1991 at the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis.

Duke 72, Kansas 65 — and the Cameron Crazies went crazier than ever in Durham and environs.

The Blue Devils repeated the following spring and added a third championship in 2001. By the end of this season, when a young Duke team finished 22-11 but failed to win the ACC regular season or tournament title, it was being called a bad year.

Such is the magic wrought by coach Mike Krzyzewski — the famed and often defamed Coach K — that anything less than a trip to the Final Four is disappointing to the faithful. Over his 27 seasons, Duke has a record of 702-202 and a winning percentage of .777.

Before Krzyzewski left Army to take the job, Duke had highly successful coaches (Vic Bubas in the 1960s, Bill Foster in the 1970s) and its share of All-Americans (Dick Groat, Jack Marin, Art Heyman, Jeff Mullins, Bob Verga, Mike Gminski, Jim Spanarkel). Nonetheless, the Blue Devils often took a back seat to North Carolina and N.C. State in the fierce oncourt and recruiting battles along Tobacco Road.

Krzyzewski’s fifth trip to the Final Four ended disastrously with a 103-73 thumping by UNLV in the 1990 title game. For many Duke fans, the highlight of the 1991 tournament came when the Blue Devils nipped Jerry Tarkanian’s supposedly invincible Runnin’ Rebels 79-77 in the semifinals, ending UNLV’s 45-game winning streak.

“If it’s close at the end, it will be new for them,” Krzyzewski told his players before the game. “They haven’t been there; you have. Keep it close and the advantage is ours.”

So true. UNLV led 76-71 with time running out, but a 3-point basket by Bobby Hurley and a three-point play by Thomas Hill pulled the Blue Devils even at 77-77. Then two free throws by Christian Laettner with 12 seconds left won it.

When the ensuing bedlam died down, Krzyzewski reminded his team that a huge hurdle remained: Roy Williams’ Kansas Jayhawks in the championship game. This was no time for an emotional letdown after the thrilling semifinal.

Two nights later, the finalists went at it. More than a decade later, Williams would move to North Carolina, his alma mater, and begin coaching and recruiting against Krzyzewski on an annual basis. But this was their most significant clash of all.

Strangely, Duke won it despite getting just two field goals over the final 10:28. Laettner was named the game’s outstanding player even though he had only three field goals; most of his points came from the foul line, where he was 12-for-12. Overall, Duke was 20-for-28 at the line to 4-for-8 for the Jayhawks.

Kansas, seeking to win its first national title since 1988 under Larry Brown, helped the Blue Devils considerably by shooting 41.5 percent from the floor, its third-worst figure of the season. The Jayhawks endured a five-minute scoring drought in the second half, allowing Duke to build a double-digit lead.

“Everything we tried to do they had answers for,” said Williams, baffled and upset by his team’s shooting woes. “I’ve never seen a basket have a lid on it like that. We’d miss it, tap it, get the rebound and miss again. We didn’t put ‘em down, and that’s why they’re celebrating and we’re not.”

Nobody disagreed.

“One of the things we put on the blackboard before the game was, ‘Do the little things,’ ” Williams moaned. “I don’t think we did the little things. We didn’t always play with poise. I’m not criticizing the kids. These are things that can happen in NCAA championship games.”

Yet the Jayhawks hung in there almost to the finish. After a layup by Adonis Jordan and a goaltending call against Duke star Grant Hill, Kansas trailed 70-65 with 35 seconds left.

Following a Duke timeout after Grant Hill failed to get the ball inbounds, he fired a court-length pass to Brian Davis, who dunked with 21 seconds remaining to settle the issue.

Duke was the NCAA men’s basketball champion. At last.

Krzyzewski seldom shows emotion on the bench, but he probably breathed at least an inward sigh of relief. Then he returned to stoic character, insisting, “There’s never been a monkey on my back, never. We’ve always known how to enjoy whatever we’ve accomplished.”

This was the biggest accomplishment of all for Duke’s basketball program — and a harbinger of triumphs to come. Nobody knows how many more NCAA championships the Blue Devils will win, but certainly it will be hard to top the first.

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