HOUSTON — A Final Four for Duke, at last.
On the 18th anniversary of Christian Laettner’s epic jumper as time expired to send the Blue Devils into the final weekend, No. 1 Duke (33-5) reached that showcase again, defeating No. 3 Baylor 78-71 Sunday at Reliant Stadium in the South Regional final.
It will be the team’s 15th Final Four appearance in school history—and the 11th under head coach Mike Krzyzewski—ending a five-year absence from college basketball’s most hallowed stage. The Blue Devils are the only No. 1 seed left in the NCAA Tournament.
“We’re ecstatic, proud, feel very honored and privileged to be going to the Final Four,” Krzyzewski said.
Duke got the victory behind a virtuoso performance from junior guard Nolan Smith, who led the way with a career-high 29 points and was named most outstanding player of the South Region. Senior Jon Scheyer, who earned all-Regional honors as well, added 20 of his own as the Blue Devils’ long-range shooting and advantage on the offensive boards was too much for the Bears (28-8) to handle.
In a contest in which the Blue Devils shot 10 percent worse from the field than Baylor, Duke needed every one of its second-chance opportunities and points from beyond the arc to challenge the Bears’ aggressive zone defense.
Duke shot 11-of-23 on 3-pointers, several of them coming off of offensive rebounds. The timing of those these were critical to swing the game in the Blue Devils’ favor.
At the end of the first half, Baylor appeared to be taking control of the Elite 8 matchup with a 10-0 run behind stellar play from guards LaceDarius Dunn and Tweety Carter, running out to a six-point lead with the break approaching.
Andre Dawkins stopped the bleeding for Duke, nailing his second trey of the game to end Baylor’s run and keep the Blue Devils within one possession at halftime. The freshman guard saw extended action in the first half due to junior Kyle Singler’s early foul trouble.
“For Andre, he’s not scared,” Smith said. “He feels comfortable whenever he comes in. He’s not afraid to shoot the ball.”
“He gave us a big lift,” Scheyer said. “We were a little out of rhythm. So his two threes were huge, especially the second one when we were down six to cut [the lead] to three. That was a huge shot especially.”
Smith and Scheyer hit big shots of their own, too, including a sequence of four consecutive threes that put the game away in the second half.
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The two teams were within one possession of each other for the majority of the closing period. With just less than six minutes to play, Baylor nursed a three-point lead, 57-54, and Scheyer let the ball fly, hoping to tie the game in one stroke. He missed, but the ball found its way right back to him, and the senior spotted up again to even the score.
Smith had his chance on the next possession, spotting up from the corner after Thomas kicked the ball out on an offensive rebound to put the Blue Devils up 60-59.
After Baylor responded once more, Smith found himself at the free throw line. The junior uncharacteristically missed the second free throw, but Thomas once again found the ball and passed it to the junior, who made up for his error with a three from the wing to give Duke a three-point advantage.
Then, with two-and-a-half minutes remaining, Scheyer took over once more. The senior co-captain drained his final 3-pointer to earn a six-point lead and all but secure a trip to Indianapolis.
“When there is crunch time there in the end, we just said this is all we’ve been working for the whole year,” Scheyer said. “We want to be in situations like this.”
The scoring outbursts of Smith and Scheyer overshadowed an off night for the final member of Duke’s big three. Singler failed to a hit a field goal, missing on all 10 of his attempts, and scored five points on free throws. Nevertheless, the junior was all smiles after the game, relishing in the irony of having so much fun in a game in which he was unable to contribute the way he would have liked on the offensive end.
“The most important thing was getting the win,” Singler said. “We were able to do that and make some plays when it counted.”
In the end, Singler’s struggles didn’t hold Duke back. The team has plans in Indianapolis next weekend, its hopes for an NCAA Championship still alive.