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Part VII: The Clutch Performances

all-decadeThis is the seventh in a series of Duke’s All-Decade teams, as named by various Chronicle writers, past and present. At the end of the series, you will be able to vote for your own All-Decade team, and your votes will determine The Sports Blog’s final choice. Stay tuned over the next two weeks for more All-Decade choices.

I would make some big deal about writing in this space for the first time in several months, but Shiner kind of already did that, and if there's one adjective that I don't want modifying my name, it's derivative. I will, however, point out that we still have my picture here for the blog--the sight of which makes me feel as warm inside as A Charlie Brown Christmas or a shot of vodka.

The firbrittonst step in any argument about clutch-ness (or really, most nouns) is to define terms.* I am not one of those highfalutin elitists who argues incessantly with television commentators that there is no such thing as being clutch. I am also not one of those television commentators or incessant fans who constantly label players as clutch and not clutch. The truth is that the large majority of athletes are just as good or as bad in clutch situations as they are otherwise. There is a very select group of individuals who do in fact perform better under pressure than they do in normal circumstances; the problem with this is that nobody in that select group played basketball for Duke this decade.

*And yes, it is here that I should apologize for using the "All-Decade Team" banner on a post that doesn't name five players. I wouldn't dream of being perceived as hypocritical, either.

The initial idea was to write about the best clutch performers for the Duke men's basketball team; unfortunately, that potential list would require us to broaden our definition of clutch to an almost absurd degree and to overlook essentially unclutch things like missing game-tying free throws or disappearing for long stretches in significant games. For the problem, it would seem, with the Blue Devils this decade has been nothing short of a lack of clutchness. Duke has turned six No. 1 seeds into two Final Fours. It has been upset in the NCAA Tournament eight of the last 10 years. In the entire decade, the Blue Devils have won a single postseason game as a worse-seeded team-and that was when the 2001 title team (ACC No. 2) beat North Carolina (ACC No. 1) in the ACC Tournament final.

This isn't to condemn the Duke program; how many college basketball players from the last decade could legitimately be called "clutch"? Tyler Hansbrough hit fewer shots that won games in his four years than Christian Laettner did to win regionals (and when Psycho T did beat Va. Tech, he celebrated like this). Adam Morrison cried on the court instead of prepping for a last shot. Stephen Curry passed on the last shot versus Kansas. Jameer Nelson missed against Oklahoma State. And Mateen Cleaves didn't even have the decency to avoid injury in the national championship.

(I, in fact, believe that the clutchest player of the college basketball decade is none other than Georgia Tech's Will Bynum, who scored the game-winning points in three straight Tourney games to help lead the Yellow Jackets to the title game. And he wasn't even a starter.)

For all those reasons, it's a lot easier to label performances clutch than players. And with apologies to Nate James and Sean Dockery and Dave McClure, one shot does not constitute a clutch performance.

Here, in a rough countdown manner, are the only four memorably clutch performances from the Duke men's basketball team this decade:

4. Gerald Henderson, 2008 vs. Belmont

On a very scary night in the nation's capitol for the second-seeded Blue Devils, the only time any Duke fan felt comfortable was then Gerald Henderson had the ball.

On the night, Henderson had a team-high 21 points, a team-high seven rebounds, a team-high five steals and a team-high two assists. When Belmont went on a 9-0 run to cut the Duke lead to one midway through the second half, it was Henderson who ended it with a three. When the Bruins scored eight more in a row to take a two-point lead, Henderson tied it with a layup. And when the Blue Devils found themselves down one with 17 seconds left, it was Henderson who grabbed a loose ball, and glided all 94 feet on seven dribbles past five defenders for the game-winning two points.

No one else on Duke scored in the game's final seven minutes, with Henderson providing the Blue Devils' last eight points. And they needed every one of them.

3. Luol Deng, 2004 vs. Xavier

Two profound what-ifs: 1. How differently would this decade have gone for Duke if Luol Deng had stayed? 2. How differently would it have gone if he hadn't come at all?

Duke's second and final Final Four of the aughts came in Deng's only season in 2004 and due largely to the freshman's contributions in a thriller of a regional final with seventh-seeded Xavier-who was riding a nine-game winning streak that included victories over the No. 1 team in the nation (Saint Joseph's), a 2-seed in Mississippi State and third-seeded Texas. First, with the Blue Devils down two at halftime, Deng delivered a passionate speech (or so the AP story tells me). Second, he came through on the court by sparking an 8-0 Duke run that lifted the Blue Devils from three down to five up in the final five minutes. Deng started it with a three-pointer to tie the game, then grabbed an offensive rebound and dished out to Redick for a go-ahead three before acrobatically tipping in a miss on the next possession.

Deng finished the night with 19 points and was named Most Valuable Player of the South Region. Without his contributions, Duke would have suffered its biggest upset loss of the decade, and its Final Four-less streak would extend all the way back to 2001.

2. Jason Williams, 2001 vs. Maryland

An integral aspect of a clutch performance is the ability to ignore everything that has already happened. To hit the game-winning home run or throw the game-winning TD pass, you have to forget the earlier strikeout or interception. And for Jason Williams to lead Duke back in the Miracle Minute at Cole Field House, he had to forget that he had played one of his worst games as a Blue Devil for 39 minutes.

Williams had been outplayed by Steve Blake for much of the night, and consequently Duke trailed Maryland 90-80 with under 60 seconds to play. Williams then drove for a layup, stole the ball from Drew Nicholas-the fouled-out Blake's replacement-and hit a three-pointer. After Nicholas missed a pair of free throws, Williams hit another three. That's eight points in 13 seconds.

Later that year, Williams would help spearhead an even more important comeback against the Terps, from 22 down in the national semis. That allows us to forget his subpar performance in the championship victory over Arizona or that missed free throw the following year against Indiana in the greatest clutch-to-unclutch moment in Sweet 16 history.

1. Mike Dunleavy, Jr., 2001 vs. Arizona

As remarkable as Williams' eight points in 13 seconds was earlier in 2001, the most important three-possession stretch of the decade for Duke belongs to Dunleavy, the man drafted right behind Williams.

The matchup between Duke and Arizona featured 10 players who would be drafted by the NBA (which I'm guessing is the most of any title game this decade) and was a bit tighter than expected (at least in Durham) early in the second half. That's when Dunleavy-all season the third wheel behind Shane Battier and Williams-nailed trifectas on three consecutive possessions (5:00 mark of the video) to transform a slim three-point advantage to a comfortable 10-point spread (with the help of a ridiculous Battier blocked shot).

Dunleavy led Duke with 21 points on the night, and his three threes propelled Duke to championship number three.

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