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Duke pulls out first close win

And now you know.

The question wary fans have been asking for months is, "Can the Blue Devils pull out a close game?" After a dismal loss to Michigan early in the season and a series of blowouts in which it won by no less than 12, Duke had yet to play-and win-a game in which the outcome was not assured.

After Saturday's 81-80 win against Clemson, the question is finally answered, and the fans can rest easier. Assuming, of course, that their hearts resumed beating normally after the final buzzer sounded.

Even in Cameron Indoor Stadium, close wins are never guaranteed. Ask any member of last year's team, which saw a one-point loss, at home, to the Michigan Wolverines. Saturday's Clemson game was, if not identical to that game, at least too close for comfort.

In the 1996 Duke-Michigan game, the Blue Devils were unable to convert on a single field goal in the final 10:32. Saturday afternoon, Duke had a 4:49 field goal drought. In '96, the Blue Devils gave up a 12-point second half lead to allow Michigan to win. Against Clemson, Duke had been ahead 24 points in the second half. The Tigers earned back 23 of them.

This year's Blue Devil squad, however, was able to hold off the final two Clemson points that would have completed the comeback for the Tigers. This year's Blue Devil squad now knows-along with the rest of the country-that it can win games where it does not clearly out-muscle the opponent. It can win games where the momentum is against it near the end, and it can win games where its opponent is not tired out by Duke's strong bench.

Many observers will argue that Duke did not deserve to win Saturday's game-that the sloppy play when the game was close gave Clemson the chance to win in the first place. While this is true, it was tough defense that forced a jump ball and Duke possession with just 10.4 seconds remaining and tough defense that forced both Clemson field goal attempts to miss.

"I thought our defense at the end, on the last two exchanges where we got the jump ball, and where they missed at the end, was excellent," coach Mike Krzyzewski said.

Part of Duke's problems in holding on to the substantial lead was due, Krzyzewski said, to inexperience. He cited Clemson's experience and argued that it was what kept the Tigers playing well through fatigue. He also mentioned the way it helped Clemson's inside play.

"They play off the ball handler better than we do," Krzyzewski said. "We want to penetrate too, our big guys haven't learned that yet."

What pulled Duke through was the poise of its more experienced players-consistent free throw shooting, rebounding by junior Taymon Domzalski, 19 points and six boards by senior Roshown McLeod, and an outstanding performance by junior Trajan Langdon.

Perhaps the single most vital performance in Saturday's game was that of Langdon. The co-captain, who had only converted on two three-pointers in his last three games, was 4-of-8 against Clemson. That, along with a perfect 5-for-5 afternoon at the free throw line and 3-of-3 from inside the arc, gave him a season-high 23 points. Those points, in turn, brought the Blue Devils the victory.

Any onus that came with a few sluggish games was removed with Langdon's play Saturday. Without his contribution, the Blue Devils certainly could not have won. It was his key plays that kept Duke's head above water while Clemson slowly whittled away the lead.

With 6:40 left to go, for example, Clemson had drawn within eight for the first time in 24 minutes. Langdon hauled down an offensive board and collected the hoop and the harm for a three-point play. He hit a desperately needed jump shot with just one minute left to play, which was Duke's only field goal in the final 5:57. The player hailed as "the Emperor Trajan" after last year's win over North Carolina had returned to lead his team again.

Duke's inexperience may have cost it in the second half on Saturday. But with continued leadership from Wojciechowski and McLeod, consistent free throw shooting and, of course, a strong performance by Langdon, the Blue Devils showed that they could, indeed, win a close game.

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