- The Washington Times - Friday, March 21, 2008

Losing to Virginia Commonwealth in last year’s NCAA tournament was bad enough. But at least VCU is a Certified Mid-Major. What on earth was Duke doing last night sweating one out against Belmont, proud winners of the … what was the name of that conference again? Oh yeah, the Atlantic Sun.

I say “Belmont,” you say “horse race.” Or you might say, “Dino and the …” — though, as we all know, Dino was accompanied by the Belmonts. What you don’t say, unless you’ve spent the last five months studying game tapes in your mother’s basement, is, “A vastly underrated program from a one-bid league that’s capable of knocking off anybody in the NCAAs.”

And yet it almost happened. “So close,” as Belmont coach Rick Byrd put it. “So close to getting a huge win for our school.” Indeed, it took a length-of-the-court drive by Gerald Henderson with 11.9 seconds left — and a subsequent steal of an inbounds pass by DeMarcus Nelson — to rescue the Blue Devils, save them from one of the most shocking upsets in tournament history.

A 15-seed taking out a 2-seed in the opening round? You’re talking about the hoops equivalent of lightning striking.

Mike Krzyzewski was so hoarse after Duke escaped Verizon Center with a 71-70 victory that he could have been mistaken for Don Corleone. And understandably so. His players were beaten by backdoor play after backdoor play — the most basic of basketball maneuvers — in the early going, enough to fill the Bruins’ tank with confidence.

Not that they came to Washington expecting to get waxed. On the contrary, said Alex Renfroe, whose 15 points led the way for Belmont, “I’d been thinking we could compete against them even before we got here. We saw on film they were a similar team to us” — that is, fond of the 3-point shot and not particularly big. “It was just a matter of whose shots were falling.”

Actually, both sides shot about the same (Bruins 44.1 percent, Blue Devils 43.1). That’s why Duke wasn’t able to put its pesky opponent away, even after increasing a seven-point halftime lead to 49-39 with 17:16 to go. It’s also why the loss stung the Bruins so. They were right there against, in Byrd’s description, “the premier program of the last 20 or 25 years.

“To have to go in the locker room and talk to kids who are crying …” he said, his voice trailing off. “It’s not fair. The outcome doesn’t measure how proud I am and how well they played.”

What an eye-opener to see little Belmont — which, incidentally, is located in Nashville — hang with mighty Duke, one of the Lords of the ACC. The Bruins did it by, amazingly, by having more depth than the Blue Devils. Byrd gave 10 players meaningful minutes (read: 10 or more). Krzyzewski dared to use only seven of his men that much.

And all of Byrd’s kids, Coach K noted, “have starters’ mentalities because so many guys have started. And so when we sub, it’s never like going to their bench. It’s really a brilliant strategy.

“I’ve talked to [Byrd] about it at coaches’ meetings. He said, ‘Well, we don’t do it on purpose. We just don’t have that much separation [between our first five and our second five].’ And I said, ‘A lot of teams don’t have that much separation. … But having five guys on the court always feeling like they’re a starter, that’s a heck of a thing. It’s a really good concept.”

It was nearly good enough to topple Duke. Unfortunately for Belmont, it has no player on a par with Henderson, namesake of the former NBAer. Gerald’s determined dash downcourt summoned memories of Danny Ainge breaking Notre Dame’s heart in 1981 and Tyus Edney doing likewise to Missouri in 1995.

“When I got to the 3-point line, I saw there was a lane, and I just went up and just finished it. I knew we needed a two [to go ahead], so I just took it to the basket strong.”

And so Belmont is left with What Might Have Been. Byrd will spend the offseason — if not the rest of his life — torturing himself with second-guesses: I should have called a different out-of-bounds play. I should have used a timeout when Duke defended so well and forced the guy who was supposed to receive lob pass [Shane Dansby] so far from the basket. Then maybe Nelson wouldn’t have intercepted it.

Then again, he said, this was Duke. “They don’t win accidentally.” The Belmonts of the world, on the other hand, have been known to lose accidentally.

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