WINSTON-SALEM - Gathered in a huddle with about three minutes left in the game, Nate James gave his teammates a simple message: "We've been in this situation before. Let's do what we've done over and over again. Let's win this game."
The team took that message to heart, playing heads-up defense and nailing every free throw down the stretch to ensure that this one didn't slip away.
"We beat a hell of a basketball team today," coach Mike Krzyzewski said of the 69-64 victory over No. 8 seed Kansas (24-10). "I've been in over 60 of them in the NCAA, and this was a big-time game."
Duke (29-4), which advanced to the Sweet 16 for the third straight year, will play No. 5 seed Florida (26-7) Friday in Syracuse, N.Y.
But for a brief second late in the game, it didn't look like the Blue Devils would ever make it to Syracuse.
With Duke clinging to a two-point lead and under a minute left, Kansas forward Nick Bradford recovered the deflection off Shane Battier's eighth and final block of the night and powered the ball through the hoop and drew the foul from Jason Williams. Bradford's ensuing free throw gave Kansas its first lead since the 19-minute mark.
But freshman Carlos Boozer, who dominated the post in the second half, would then make the two biggest plays of his young collegiate career in the next 30 seconds. First, Boozer tipped home a miss to put Duke back out in front by one. And on the Jayhawks' next possession, Boozer intercepted an errant pass by Bradford near midcourt and chased the ball down near the sideline, giving Duke the possession and the lead with under 30 seconds left.
The ball eventually found its way to Chris Carrawell, who was fouled. Carrawell
On the ensuing Kansas possession, Kirk Hinrich, who had already sunk three three-pointers in the game, lost his defender behind the three point line, but his potential game-tying shot with seven seconds left sailed wide. Carrawell chased down the rebound and called timeout while on both knees to give Duke possession and pave the way for Jason Williams' two free throws that sealed the victory.
"I thought our freshmen hit amazing free throws down at the end," said Krzyzewski, who won his 50th NCAA tournament game.
"Carlos came up with a great defensive play. Carrawell had a heady play, saved the ball and called timeout. It is just the difference in the game-two plays."
As far as Kansas was concerned however, the difference may have just been one play.
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On the possession that eventually led to Hinrich's missed three-pointer, the Jayhawks initially worked the ball around the perimeter looking for an open shooter to knock down a three. Kansas coach Roy Williams called a time out too softly for the referees to hear, and then dropped his hands when he saw where the ball ended up.
Jeff Boschee, the Jayhawks' three-point ace during the season, heard Hinrich calling for the ball. But Hinrich, who staked Kansas to its early 13-4 lead with his three early three-pointers, was unable to convert his final open shot.
"It was a great look, I thought it was going in," Hinrich said with tears in his eyes. "You don't know how badly I wanted to hit that shot for all of my teammates. It just didn't happen that way."
Hinrich's play to open the game stunned Duke, which made a concerted effort to come
Against Kansas, Duke managed only nine points in the first 10 minutes, making just 2 of its first 15 shots. Krzyzewski attributed the Blue Devils' early offensive woes to strong defense.
"They knocked us back, we haven't faced a team that played such good defense in the lane," Krzyzewski said. "I told the team, we're not playing bad. We just have to adjust to high-level game.... They didn't get anything easy today and we didn't either. It was extremely difficult to score."
The Blue Devils' strategy was to fight defense with defense. Battier in particular came on strong, playing the entire game and finishing with eight rebounds and a career-high eight blocks.
After a dismal shooting first half (1-of-4 from the field and 0-for-1 from three-point land) Battier ended up contributing 21 points, 10 from the free throw line. Battier and Boozer went on an offensive tear in the second half, scoring 21 of the team's 34 points.
"Good players have to find ways of scoring," Battier said. "I didn't resign myself to be just a jump-shooter. Your game goes as your jump shot, and mine wasn't falling. I posted up more, took off the dribble and played more aggressive."
And in a game that had all the drama and intensity of a Final Four contest, Battier's aggressiveness proved to be a difference between a trip to Syracuse and one way trip home to Durham.
"Playing against a team like [Kansas] in this round is like playing a regional championship game," Krzyzewski said. "The level of play out there today, effort-wise, was regional championship/Final Four."