LAHAINA, Hawaii - With 44.5 seconds left and Duke up 73-71, Gerald Henderson went to the line and sunk his first free throw. Marquette head coach Tom Crean called timeout to ice the shooter and regroup his team. As if on cue, the Blue Devil faithful in attendance Wednesday night at the Lahaina Civic Center erupted in cheer, "Our House. Our House."
But the deed to Duke's fourth Maui Invitational still needed to be signed at the free-throw line.
Henderson returned to the charity stripe out of the timeout and drained his second shot to put the Blue Devils up four. Yet just as they had all game, the No. 11 Golden Eagles answered on the next possession, pushing the ball up to junior Jerel McNeal, who spun to the basket and layed it in within 10 ticks for two of his 11 points.
With only 13 seconds remaining, it was Kyle Singler's turn to go to the line, again with No. 13 Duke up two at 75-73. The 6-foot-8 freshman knocked down his first shot, and again Crean called timeout, this time to try to psyche-out the rookie. Singler, however, would not be shaken. He hit his second shot, sealing the Blue Devils' 77-73 title win over Marquette (4-1) and cementing his place as the Maui Invitational's most valuable player.
"I knew I was going to make it. There was no doubt in my mind," Singler said of the second free throw. "There was no doubt I was going to make it a two-possesion game."
Singler led all scorers Wednesday night with 25 points, going 7-of-11 from the field and 3-for-5 from behind the arc. His two free throws to close out the contest for Duke (5-0) were the capstone of a perfect 8-of-8 effort from the line. With the tournament's top accolades, Singler joins the likes of Bobby Hurley, Steve Wojciechowski and Mike Dunleavy, who earned MVP honors in the Blue Devils' island-crown runs in 1992, 1997 and 2001, respectively.
Even when the freshman was not finishing under the basket, he seemed to be the catalyst of some of the game's most defining plays. Up 65-61, Singler fed fellow forward Lance Thomas, who slid under the basket and went up strong, drawing the foul, draining the bucket and bringing the Blue Devil bench emphatically to its feet.
"He's got great moxi," Crean said. "Kyle is someone who has gone in and done an excellent job of understanding what the Duke program wants from him. He can play outside, he can play mid-range, and he can play at the rim, and for a young freshman, he's a very good defensive player."
But just as the freshman is filling his role, so too is the senior. Nelson earned all-tournament honors, but more importantly in Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewksi's eyes, the senior has proven himself worthy of his captain's C.
Nelson scored 16 points, grabbed seven rebounds and dished out four assists in 35 minutes of play. The senior was strong and athletic in creating his own shots as four of his buckets came on either dunks or layups, and he made eight trips to the free-throw line-a crucial performance in a game that featured 10 ties and nearly as many lead changes.
Krzyzewski called Nelson selfless and steady, saying that over the three games in Maui, his senior guard has reaffirmed that he is the captain the coach has been looking for. And Nelson is feeling the difference between this season and last as much as he is showing it.
"I've matured a lot," Nelson said. "Really taking that responsibility [of the captaincy] with open arms, trying to make the most of an opportunity, making sure guys are ready to play, making sure that guys are in the right spots- the end result is that it makes me better because I have to be there for my teammates at all times."
Although the Blue Devils' record in Maui remains perfect, Marquette was able to expose some flaws in the tight loss. The Golden Eagles penetrated the Duke defense throughout the contest, with four of their five starters registering double-digits in scoring. Guard Dominic James looked unstoppable in the first half, when he put up 11 of his 12 points for the night primarily by slashing to the hoop. The Blue Devil zone, which Krzyzewski said looked lazy at times in the second period, was relatively effective in containing James, although it allowed McNeal and forward Lazar Hayward to get more opportunities than they had in the opening half.
"When you have good players, we're going to drive, they're going to drive. We're going to score. They're going to score," Krzyzewski said. "We just hope we do it more times than they do."
And that's exactly what Duke did Wednesday night in island paradise. The Blue Devils edged a solid Marquette team, hoisting the championship trophy amid cheering fans in their vacation home with an ocean view from the top.
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