ATLANTA - After getting crushed on the boards all afternoon, the Blue Devils chose an opportune time to crash the glass Saturday at the Georgia Dome.
Third-seeded Maryland (21-10) grabbed more defensive rebounds than second-seeded Duke (28-4) did total rebounds in the semifinals of the ACC tournament, but the Terrapins let the one defensive rebound they needed most land in their opponents' hands. And it cost them everything.
With a few seconds left after Maryland's Steve Blake tied the game at 82-82 with a three-pointer, Duke point guard Jason Williams drove the lane and threw up a runner that clanked off the rim. But none of Maryland's players boxed out Duke senior Nate James, who leaped toward the rim and tapped in Williams' miss with 1.3 seconds left for a thrilling 84-82 victory that set up a series-settling third game between Duke and archrival North Carolina in Sunday's championship game.
The Terps had one final chance to win, but Juan Dixon's halfcourt heave at the buzzer fell to the left, giving Duke the opportunity to claim its third consecutive ACC tournament championship Sunday against the Tar Heels.
"It's under our contract with ESPN," joked senior Shane Battier, who scored 20 points and played all 40 minutes against the Terrapins. "We have to provide a certain amount of Instant Classics every year."
Saturday marked the third Instant Classic between Duke and Maryland this season. In the teams' first meeting, the Terps held a 10-point advantage with a minute left until Williams scored eight unanswered points to rally Duke in one of the greatest late-game comebacks of alltime. When the teams last played in the final week of the regular season, the Terrapins came back from a double-digit deficit to defeat Duke on Senior Night in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
In the rubber match Saturday, the reigning ACC champs seemed like they were going to pull away when they began raining three-pointers all over the Georgia Dome. The Blue Devils opened the second half with five unanswered treys to build a lead that reached its height at 14 points, but Maryland eventually regrouped and the game hung in the balance until Dixon's 30-footer missed a few inches to the left.
"I thought Dixon's shot was in; it was right on line," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
Krzyzewski's counterpart, Gary Williams, stood only a few feet away from Dixon and had perhaps the best line of sight to watch the All-ACC guard's last-ditch effort. Maryland's coach said as close as the shot came to making for another in the long line of March miracles, he could tell it was going to miss as soon as it left Dixon's hands.
"Juan had to make a 30-footer to be the hero. He is capable of making that and he almost did," Williams said. "It was just a little to the left all the way, but he had a good look at it."
Maryland's overwhelming edge in rebounding produced countless extra-chance shot attempts, but the Blue Devils more than made up for that number by forcing the Terps into 20 turnovers while only yielding six themselves. As a result, despite giving up 51 rebounds to their 30, the Blue Devils managed to take nine more attempts from the field than their opponents.
And Duke needed every shot it took, as the normally hot-shooting team connected on a meager 36 percent of its field goals. Finding their range was a particular problem for the Blue Devils in the first half, when their 3-for-13 performance from beyond the arc enabled Maryland to control play early and head into halftime with a three-point lead.
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Still, even when the Blue Devils began the game especially cold and trailed 10-0 after failing to score a single point in the first four minutes, Krzyzewski's confidence in his players did not waiver. Duke's coach let them play without stopping the clock once before the first official timeout.
"This team does not need rescuing," Krzyzewski said. "That was my way of telling them I was confident. Calling quick timeouts is not what a championship team needs."
Battier led all scorers with 20 points, but the power forward only grabbed four rebounds. No Blue Devil snared more than six boards, while Maryland center Lonny Baxter claimed 12 for his eighth double-double of the season. Jason Williams added 19 points for Duke as he knocked down 5-of-9 from three-point land after hitting zero there in the first half.
The Blue Devils also received solid contributions from Casey Sanders, whose seven points, two blocks and three offensive rebounds overshadowed his 1-for-7 night from the free-throw line.
The struggles at the charity stripe were not just Sanders', though. In the final eight minutes of the game, Duke missed seven out of 10 free throws-two by Battier, two by Sanders, the front end of a one-and-one by Williams and two by Mike Dunleavy-until Dunleavy sank two to give the Blue Devils a three-point lead with 16 seconds remaining. Nonetheless, Duke's players denied that fatigue played any part in their struggles.
Their endurance will be tested Sunday when the Blue Devils square off with the Tar Heels in a contest that will almost certainly determine who receives the No. 1 seed in the East. The loser will likely also receive a No. 1 seed, presumably in the South region.