- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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WASHINGTON -- Waiting for the inbounds play, Kyle Singler put his hand on Matthew Dotson's chest, trying to spot the Belmont player for defensive purposes. Without even looking down, Dotson brushed it away. It was a meaningless encounter, something that happens countless times in virtually every basketball game at every level.
Occurring when it did and where it did, with second-seeded Duke clinging to a one-point lead over supposedly overmatched 15-seed Belmont, though, it's hard not to view the swat away through the eyes of deeper interpretation.
There was a time when little schools from Nashville -- the kind that get more publicity out of their coach's best budship with country crooner Vince Gill than from their basketball program -- would be wide-eyed and mystified at playing Duke with all its mythological mystique.
Those days are gone, my friend.
It tells you everything you need to know about this NCAA first-rounder that after the game, Belmont wasn't sad or depressed about missing the upset.
The Bruins were flat-out angry that they let one slip away.
And they should be. Belmont was the tougher team. And for all but a few bad choice spot-up-and-shoot 3s in transition and one harebrained inbounds pass, it was the better team in a devastatingly close 71-70 loss.
"I've been thinking we could compete before we got here," guard Alex Renfroe said. "I was like, I mean, we have a chance. It's a heartbreaker, I'm not going to lie. You were that close, and just to go home and think a couple of weeks later, man, maybe we should have been playing on Saturday."
Instead, it is the Devils moving on by the skin of their teeth.
"It's all about winning, whether by one or 100," Duke's Jon Scheyer said. "We're relieved. We won our first game, and we're going on."
There was a time when those words would have been heresy.
Relief at getting out of the first round? Isn't that feat a Blue Devils birthright?
But Duke is quickly becoming the Green Bay Packers of college basketball, living more on its faded glory than on current success. The aura is tinged, the mystique has dissipated. This year, with no threatening big man and a team that looks imminently ordinary, what with a bunch of 3-point shooters, Duke was the 2-seed everyone wanted to get.
"We really match up with them well," said Gill, who met coach Rick Byrd at a charity golf outing more than 20 years ago when the perennial Grammy winner was a fairly unknown singer. "When we knew we were in, this was the team I wanted to see. I thought we could beat them."
Wanting to see Duke in the first round? A 15-seed? What in the name of Christian Laettner is going on here?
But history to 18-year-olds who IM instead of phone home is fleeting, and Duke just doesn't have recent enough entries to invoke that intimidation anymore. The Devils have not been to the Elite Eight since 2004, have been to just one Final Four in six years and haven't hoisted a national championship trophy since 2001.
And the truth is, this win shouldn't make anyone puff out his chest at the Blue Devils' triumphant return to the second round.
It is not as though Belmont caught a lollygagging Duke team with its knickers around its ankles or shot some out-of-orbit number from the 3-point line. The Bruins were in the game from the get-go, trailed by no more than 10 (a deficit they erased with ease) and shot a rather pedestrian 8-for-23 from the arc.
Belmont took it to Duke, sometimes right down the gut or on slippery backdoors. The Bruins schooled and exposed the Blue Devils' defense, and they put a searchlight on all the warts and worries that have dogged Duke all season.
Put simply, the Devils and all their ACC heft and national titles and mystique and aura and NCAA tradition couldn't guard the Bruins. They could not stop a team that has never beaten an ACC opponent, that has never won an NCAA game.
Byrd spread the floor, enticing Duke out to the wing with the danger of 3-pointers, then he sent his players driving to the hoop as though there was no one there.
Mostly because there was no one there. Afterward, stunned Bruins players talked about how this sort of game hadn't been given to them all season, not by Florida Gulf Coast or Kennesaw State or Lipscomb. Usually, Belmont does need to win at the arc -- the Bruins take an average of 10 3-pointers per game -- but the Devils protected the line, opening up everything else.
"They're not as big as some of teams they've had in the past," Justin Hare said. "They like to shoot a lot. So I thought we matched up well with them. And then seeing them on tape, we thought we could play with them. We pushed the ball."
Renfroe, a 160-pound guard who plays on two legs that resemble pickup sticks, blew into the paint almost unchallenged and scored 15 points, two shy of the career high he set against Gardner-Webb (yep, that Kentucky-slaying Gardner-Webb).
The Bruins were more than just there. They had the game won. Down four, Andy Wicke drained a 3-pointer in front of his own bench. And after DeMarcus Nelson missed at the other end, Hare rebounded, drawing a foul. Hare went to the line for the bonus, nailing both to put Belmont up 70-69 with two minutes to play.
Suddenly, everyone in the Verizon Center was a student, fan or alum of the tiny school famous for its country-singing alumni (Minnie Pearl, Trisha Yearwood and Brad Paisley are all grads). Fans wearing West Virginia yellow and Arizona red stood on their feet, all quickly learning the Belmont chant.
"Oh man, this is just great," Gill said. "We get a chance to cheer. How many 15 seeds can say that? Usually you get beat by 30 points, but we have a chance."
Neither team could score for what seemed an eternity, the clock trickling down to well under a minute, Belmont ball. Renfroe drained the shot clock to the final seconds but had to force a clanker off the bottom half of the backboard. Gerald Henderson corralled the rebound, and there was no way Henderson was passing.
Henderson is the only person who saved the Devils from epic disaster -- with 21 points, seven boards and five steals -- so no need to pass. He took the rebound and didn't even look at another option, going right down the court for a powerful drive to the hoop and the lead.
After Hare failed to score on a baseline drive, Belmont got the ball back on a jump ball with four seconds left. Plenty of time for a simple inbounds play right under its hoop.
Renfroe tried to lob a pass in to Henry Harris, but the pass was a force into a glut of players and Nelson stretched back one long arm, picking off the inbounds and sealing the victory.
"It's almost a play that has to be there; it's very hard to read it," Byrd said. "It's almost, you just have to go ahead and throw the pass. If you wait to see if he's open on a little lob play, then you're probably too late to get him and you just take a chance."
If you're a Blue Devil, there is a glass-half-full/glass-half-empty way of looking at this game: that Duke survived a near-fatal blow and lived to tell about it or that the Devils are in a boatload of trouble going forward.
Guess which one the Devils chose?
"We do need to play a lot better, but Belmont is a very good team and they shot the ball well," Singler said. "We need to play better defense, but our offense was there. Getting through this game will just help us, getting that thing off our back, that first win."
Not exactly fear-of-God instilling, knee-shaking, earth-quaking talk. But for this Duke team, it's all there is right now.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Duke breathed a sigh of relief when Justin Hare's game-winning heave clanked off the rim. Belmont was angry it let the game slip away. Such is the life for a Duke program that is no longer feared by 15-seeds, writes Dana O'Neil.