CHARLOTTE - Take away a National Player of the Year candidate, and it turns out Duke was still too much for the rest of the ACC.
Without Trajan Langdon, the top-ranked Blue Devils' other big guns stepped up yesterday and blew out third-seeded North Carolina (24-9) for the second weekend in a row, this time 96-73, to claim Duke's first ACC tournament title since 1992. Tournament MVP Elton Brand led the way with 24 points and 13 rebounds and Will Avery added a game-high 29 as the Blue Devils (32-1) closed out the season a perfect 19-of-19 against the conference.
With their 27th straight win, Duke earned the No. 1 seed in the East Region for the NCAA tournament and will square off against Florida A&M Friday back in Charlotte.
"What a great regular season," Mike Krzyzewski said. "I thought our kids played today as they did all year long. They played hard together, which they have all season.
"This year, we really wanted to win [after losing to UNC in the ACC finals last season]."
The Blue Devils opened the second half with 10 straight points, stretching their advantage to 59-35 when Avery buried his fourth three-pointer from 22 feet just 1:48 in. At that point, Duke looked to be on its way toward another blowout.
But UNC responded with a 14-0 run of its own, sparked by seven points from Max Owens, and closed the advantage to nine, 65-56, on a Brendan Haywood free throw with 10:28 left.
"They're not a team that was going to roll over and die," Nate James said. "When you're playing really good teams they're going to make runs, and UNC's a great team. We just knew we had to play through the pressure, not get tight and step up in crunch time."
The Blue Devils indeed responded to the challenge. Avery took the ball on Duke's subsequent possession, drove the left baseline and glided around Haywood for the layup and 11-point lead. The Tar Heels
The 23-point margin of victory was the third highest in the finals of an ACC tournament.
"We knew as soon as we got rebounding and running, we could get a big lead," Avery said. "We just wanted to play defense and stay aggressive all night. I think people expected us to get tight in a situation like this, but we're a mature, veteran team.
"Things like that just don't get to us. We kept our composure, stayed poised and finished them off."
Avery joined Brand on the tournament first team by scoring 58 points in Duke's three games. Yesterday, he knocked down five threes for the afternoon, had four steals and five assists. Brand missed just two shots out of 11, while Shane Battier, seeing his first extended playing time since an ankle sprain, scored 13 with eight boards in 34 minutes.
Just as they did in Chapel Hill a week ago, the Blue Devils as a team outrebounded UNC, this time 35-30.
"It was the same as the game in Chapel Hill," said Ademola Okulaja, who posted a double-double but hit just 1-of-5 three-pointers. "They dominated the boards, and we didn't get any fast breaks from that, so there were no easy baskets. I want to congratulate Duke on their win, and finally they know how it feels to win the ACC."
In the first half, Okulaja and UNC stayed close for about 15 minutes. After both teams matched big runs, the Tar Heels were within five, 32-27, with six minutes left when Ed Cota threaded the needle to a wide-open Vasco Evtimov inside. But the sophomore blew the point-blank layup and Duke took advantage of the opportunity.
Chris Carrawell pulled up from the free-throw line for a basket 20 seconds later, Avery knocked down a three over Cota out top and Battier converted a three-point play after a great feed inside from Avery as the Blue Devils opened a 13-point advantage. Avery's third three-pointer of the first half, with 1:34 left, gave Duke a 49-33 lead.
"They've just taken everybody apart," North Carolina coach Bill Guthridge said. "They're so efficient and so effective. For us to have a chance today, we would have had to play our best game of the year."
Duke advanced to the semifinals by knocking off a gritty fifth-seeded N.C. State team (18-13), 83-68. The Wolfpack was as close as eight, 53-45, with 15 minutes left in the game when the Blue Devils turned up their defense to pull away.
A pair of steals and State turnovers sparked a 10-0 Duke run, with all five baskets coming on dunks or layups in transition. The Blue Devils opened the second half hitting 10 of their first 11 shots, with Brand making 4-of-5 in the final 20 minutes on his way to 19 points and 12 boards.
Corey Maggette, however, was the star, filling in brilliantly for Langdon by making 8-of-10 shots for 24 points with just one turnover. The freshman scored 17 of his points in the first half when the Wolfpack was still in the game.
With the ACC tournament now behind them, the Blue Devils can finally look straight ahead at the one goal they've been pointing toward all season long.
"We're trying to win a national championship, and that should be exciting," Krzyzewski said when asked about the pressure his team has faced all season long. "It we don't win a national championship, it will be because someone beat us, not because of pressure."
Notes: Duke became the third team in the ACC since 1978 to win both the outright regular season title and tournament championship. The Blue Devils also accomplished the feat in 1986 and '92.... This is Duke's 10th ACC championship since the tournament's inception in 1954. The Blue Devils are now 10-10 in title games.