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Valiant Duhon, gritty Devils stymie Illinois

 Duke dismisses IllinoisAll photos by The Chronicle's Anthony Cross

ATLANTA, Ga. — He took a grand total of one shot and scored a whopping four points, spending much of the game grimacing in pain. But thanks to Chris Duhon, Duke will be playing for a spot in the Final Four for the second time in four years this Sunday in Atlanta.

The senior point guard did just about everything Friday night in leading the Blue Devils to a hard-fought 72-62 victory over a very quick and physical Illinois team. Everything, that is, except score.

Playing with badly bruised ribs, Duhon threw his body all over the Georgia Dome going after loose balls, dished out eight assists, held Illinois’ leading scorer, Deron Williams, to just seven points, and somehow—at 6-foot-1—managed to lead both teams in rebounding with ten.

All in a night’s work for Duke’s captain and unquestioned leader.

“Chris Duhon’s performance was simply amazing,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “With the condition that he is in, for him to get ten rebounds, I am just in awe of his performance. To see the guys fight through tonight and put themselves in a position now to play to reach the Final Four is very gratifying to me.”

Duke needed every ounce of leadership and courage Duhon could muster, because the fifth-seeded Illini showed no sign of backing down against the favored, top-seeded Blue Devils. Illinois took it right at Duke in the first half, attacking the Blue Devils down low as center James Augustine scored on a number of layups and dunks.

Meanwhile, the Illini clamped down inside on the opposite end of the court. Shelden Williams, smothered by double teams, was continually forced to dish the ball outside for jump shots, and finished the half with only four points. With the Illini owning the paint and the Blue Devils firing away from the perimeter, Duke went into halftime winning by the slimmest of margins, with a 31-30 lead.

“In the first half, we were fortunate to be up by one because I thought that they were in control of the game,” Krzyzewski said. “Illinois was quicker than any other team we played this year and they just kept jamming it right at us.”

The second half, however, was a different story.

It began with Duhon hitting a streaking Williams for a thunderous one-handed dunk, signaling Duke’s intention to push the ball inside. Thirty seconds later, Williams muscled his way inside for a layup, and then blocked Augustine on the opposite end for good measure.

“As a team we spoke about that at halftime,” freshman Luol Deng said. “We wanted to get the ball inside more and drive in more instead of just settling for the jump shot. Their pressure and their double team were making us take jump shots, so the coaching staff told us that we needed to [go inside].”

With Williams and Deng—who led all scorers with 18 points—providing muscle in the post, the Blue Devils pulled away from Illinois in the second half. The turning point came halfway through the frame.

In a three-minute sequence, Williams scored on a hook shot and hit a cutting Deng for a layup, Deng drew a crucial charge on Augustine to give the Illini center his fourth foul and Shavlik Randolph powered in a layup while being fouled.

When J.J. Redick buried his second three-pointer from the wing with 6:24 remaining, the Blue Devils held a commanding 67-57 lead, and the Illinois threat was all but vanquished.

“I thought all three of our big guys, Shelden, Luol, and Shavlik, played really well in the second half,” Krzyzewski said.

But while the big men led the second-half charge and Redick provided the dagger from beyond the arc, the Blue Devils’ performance began and ended with their leader, Duhon, and his courageous effort.

“I have to show strength to these guys,” Duhon said. “I’m their captain and their leader, and I want them to follow my example. If I take my foot off the gas, it gives them the opportunity to take their foot off the gas. Right now I’m putting the pedal to the metal, [because] this is the last go-round for me and I want to make it the best.”

Duhon and the Blue Devils now have only Xavier standing between them and their first trip to the Final Four since the point guard was a freshman.

Please stay tuned to The Chronicle Online later today for a commentary from the Duke-Illinois game, and a preview of Sunday's matchup versus seventh-seeded Xavier.

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