Thursday, March 21, 2002|
Updated: March 22, 7:55 PM ET
An un-Duke-like ending
By Andy Latack
ESPN The Magazine
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- The whistle cut through the deafening noise at the same time Jason Williams' 3-pointer dropped through the net. And just like that, everyone in Rupp Arena knew. They knew.
Duke, down a seemingly impossible four points with 11 seconds left, was going to come back and win this dang thing. Sure, Indiana had fought valiantly, but wasn't this how things always worked out for the Blue Devils? Williams was going to hit this free throw, tie the game, and Duke would cruise by six or eight in OT.
And even when Williams' free throw rattled off the rim and popped into the hands of Carlos Boozer, they still knew. Forget OT -- now Duke was just going to win it in regulation. Just watch Boozer convert this bunny.
So when Boozer's shot glanced off the rim and Indiana's Jeffrey Newton grabbed the rebound -- securing the Hoosiers' they-did-what? upset and sending the defending national champs packing -- there was no noise inside Rupp. Instead, it was a vacuum -- the sound of 22,338 people gasping at the same time.
Even the Indiana players weren't sure what had happened. They furtively checked the score board one more time before beginning their midcourt dogpile and, sure enough, it read: Indiana 74, Duke 73. Dogpile away.
And so this is how it ends for mighty Duke. Of all the teams eliminated in this Sweet 16, the defending national champs bowed out first. The team you penciled into the Final Four as soon as the brackets came out was shocked by the fifth-seeded Hoosiers in Thursday's regional semifinal, the second time a top-seeded Duke team has been bounced in the regional semifinals by a No. 5 seed in three years.
This is also how it ends for Matt Christensen, Duke's only senior. At the end of a game in which there were questionable calls on both sides -- Boozer's final try was hotly contested -- the Duke senior center heatedly confronted referee Bruce Benedict as the Blue Devils were leaving the court. (The NCAA says it's looking into the matter).
And ultimately, this is how it ends for Jason Williams.
The nation's best player is gone to the pros -- most likely followed by Boozer -- and this was how he went out. By missing a free throw that would've almost certainly extended the game into overtime and kept the Blue Devils alive in this tournament. Williams isn't technically the goat (he had to bury the 3 to even get the Devils in this situation), but for a kid that's used to being the hero, it's close enough. The Naismith Award winner spent his last few minutes on a collegiate court wandering through the postgame handshake line, tears streaming down his cheeks.
Jason Williams, sobbing uncontrollably? A player getting in the face of an official? All in all, the scene was very un-Duke.
Later, Williams sat in the locker room, staring hard at the carpet with crimson eyes. "There are gonna be games like this," he said, shaking his head as if he needed convincing himself. "The ball just didn't bounce my way today."
The Blue Devils are used to getting those bounces. They expect them; Mike Dunleavy admitted as much at the postgame press conference. But they didn't get them against the Hoosiers.
If they had, Duke would've put the Hoosiers away early. Up 13 early in the second half, Williams blew a breakaway layup. On the next trip down the floor, Boozer missed an easy one too. At the time, the misses elicited only a minor groan from the Duke bench. But they let the Hoosiers hang around.
Later, Duke was up 70-64 with 2:50 left -- a usually insurmountable deficit against the well-heeled Blue Devils. But much like Duke's infamous Williams-engineered comeback against Maryland last season, the Hoosiers reeled off 10 straight points to take their first lead with just over a minute left. It helped that Indiana owned the glass, outrebounding the Devils by 12 in the second half. Jared Jeffries had 15 by himself, nine of them offensive. Not putting a body on someone? Very un-Duke.
"The bottom line is we didn't get stops when we needed to," Dunleavy said. "But at Duke, you always think you're going to win in the end."
That's what everyone in the crowd thought as well. When Williams hit his 3, the noisy Rupp throng of pro-Indiana and anti-Duke fans -- which united to turn this into a virtual road game for the Blue Devils -- collectively slumped their shoulders. They had watched for 39 gleeful minutes and 56 glorious seconds as Williams stumbled through the game, managing 15 points on 6-of-19 shooting from the floor. While Boozer was manhandling the Hoosiers inside (19 points, 9 rebounds) and Dunleavy was hitting crucial 3s, Williams was such a non-factor that this was the first time he had made it to the line all night.
But now here was the face of Duke basketball -- who had well-publicized sufferings from the charity stripe earlier this season in losses to Virginia and Florida State -- with a chance to mend his Achilles heel and make everything right in the Land of Duke. It was almost too perfect. And when Williams missed, it was almost too much to believe.
"The shot felt good when it left my hand," Williams remembers of his final college play. "It was halfway down and just rimmed back out."
Afterward in the Duke locker room, nobody was sure how to act -- least of all the Devils themselves. They sit, staring straight ahead, retrieving clothes from lockers with the names of Kentucky players on them, a stinging reminder that other teams still have their tourney lives. Dunleavy, sitting under Tayshaun Prince's nameplate, wonders about the no-call on Boozer's final shot.
"Carlos doesn't miss that shot inside very often," Dunleavy said. "It makes you wonder."
Complaining about calls? Again, very un-Duke. Nearby, forward Dahntay Jones fights off tears and stares straight ahead. For everyone, seeing the Dukies in post-loss gloom is a rare occasion. Photographers snap pictures with the same zeal as if they had just seen Cameron Diaz in sweat pants at the Seven Eleven -- snap away, because who knows when this is going to happen again?
"This group has won 132 games in four years and lost 15," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski says. "But each time we go on the court there is a chance the team we are playing will beat us."
Duke was used to the microscope -- they were marked men ever since they touched down in Blugrass Country. Apparently, the legions of Kentucky fans decided to hate the team that had beaten them more recently (UK managed a W against Indiana this year, but lost an OT heartbreaker to Duke). The crowd was against the Devils from the beginning, which might have made a difference in the end. With 11 seconds left and the Blue Devils down for the first time all game, 72-70, Indiana guard A.J. Moye went to the line. Jones, on the bench after fouling out, apparently forgot where he was -- he turned toward the crowd and motioned for them to make noise. Fat chance; Moye hit both in morgue-like silence. But a few seconds later, when Williams got the ball from the ref, Rupp was a madhouse.
Who knows if the crowd bearing down on J-Dub made a difference? He's definitely used to pressure by now. The again, he shot 68 percent from the line this year -- burying many of those in the friendly confines of Cameron Indoor.
As Williams left the floor, Dunleavy, realizing it was their last game together, grabbed his teammate. He told Williams he loved him and that he had done too much for the program to hang his head over the miss. "But you know this will stick with him for a few days," Dunleavy said later. Either way, Goliath has been slain. Indiana moves on, while Duke boards what promises to be a long flight back to Durham. And while the rowdy fans at Rupp are happy to see them go, there's probably some college basketball fans who still wish the Dukies were in the South Region.
They might be the only ones who can stop Kent State.
Andy Latack writes for ESPN The Magazine.