Salt Lake City - The stage was set for a major upset.
Dahntay Jones had already fouled out, as had Casey Sanders. Duke found itself without its leading scorer and defensive presence. A hostile crowd in the Huntsman Center stood on its feet and filled the air with chants of "CSU, CSU." Leading just 58-57, the Blue Devils held their collective breath as Colorado State failed to convert a wide open three-point shot and then missed two straight free throws.
Ripe for a first-round exit though it may have been, Duke- and particularly freshman Shelden Williams- didn't panic.
With 1:24 left to play, the 6-foot-9 power forward put back a Chris Duhon miss and then followed with two, clutch free throws a possession later, as the Blue Devils held on for a 67-57 win Thursday night in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The 14th-seeded Rams gave No. 3 seed Duke all it could handle, but fell just short of shaking up the West Regional.
"We knew going in that Colorado State played excellent man-to-man defense," Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "They're a very difficult team to beat. They were terrific."
Prior to Williams' heroics, sophomore Daniel Ewing delivered a clutch performance that was equally important to the Blue Devils' victory. After Jones received his fifth foul with 5:51 to play and Duke up just 54-51, Ewing- despite having scored just two points up to that point- sank a huge three-point shot and then a driving layup on the following offensive possession to push Duke's advantage back up to eight.
"Daniel and Shelden, it wasn't going well for them," Krzyzewski said. "For them to step up in pressure in those last minutes, for me, that's unbelievable. I love that."
Although considered by many to be one of America's more popular teams nationwide, the Blue Devils found themselves entering an arena routing fully for the underdog. Fans cheered loudly for Colorado State, particularly whenever a questionable Ram foul call sent Duke to the free throw line."
Booed when they took the court for warm-ups, the Blue Devils approached the contest as a road game.
"That's a tough environment to play in," Jones said. "It's like a home environment for them, basically. The fact that our first game is going to give us some confidence and push us along in the tournament."
Added Krzyzewski, "They deserved to be cheered for. They were certainly worthy of that kind of support."
Up just 24-22 with five minute remaining in the first half, Duke nearly closed out the period on a 12-5 run, but Colorado State senior Andy Birley connected on a double-pump three-pointer as time expired to keep the Rams within six at the break.
Jones started off the game with authority, scoring Duke's opening 11 points on his way to finishing the first half with 15. He would lead all scores with 23 points in just 27 minutes.
Jones began the second half picking up immediately where he left off, sinking a turnaround 16-footer and then, one possession later, calling for the ball and draining a three-pointer over a helpless Ram defender. Duke now held an 11-point edge, and Colorado State quickly called time-out.
Having to watch the game's final six minutes from the bench proved very stressful for the senior, though.
"It's a terrible feeling," he said. "You have to be able to trust your teammates. Those are the guys I went to war with all year, and I was confident.... When I saw those guys fighting and competing, I knew this wasn't going to be my last game."
Perhaps the contest's most anticipated match-up was Colorado State center Matt Nelson against Duke's small lineup. After entering the contest off the bench, as is his custom, the big man immediately worked at establishing himself in block.
Facing frequent double-teams, the seven-foot sophomore achieved early success, scoring 12 points in the first half on 4-for-11 shooting. Blue Devil post players Williams and Sanders combined to blocked four of his shots, but Nelson's play allowed the Rams to stay close.
Colorado State head coach Dale Layer applauded Duke's interior defense, as well as his sophomore's resilience in not letting a few blocked shots alter his mentality.
"They probably defended Matt Nelson better than anyone has all year," he said. "I knew what kind of a defender Sanders was. Matt stuck with it and got his confidence back."
Nelson finished with 21 points, but the overall battle in the paint proved to be very much a stalemate, as the Blue Devils out-rebounded the Rams 40-35.
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