Commentary

A decade later, title game still resonates

Players and sportswriters reflect on the Duke-Arizona 2001 championship game

Originally Published: March 24, 2011
By ESPN.com staff

On Thursday night in Anaheim, Calif., Duke and Arizona will square off in the Sweet 16. Ten years ago in Minneapolis, the stakes were even larger.

On April 2, 2001, the Blue Devils and Wildcats met at the Metrodome in a national title game that featured future pros nearly everywhere you looked. In the end, Duke's stars were just a bit better than Arizona's in the Devils' 82-72 victory.

To pay tribute to that game a decade later, we enlisted four people who were in the Dome that night: an All-American point guard for Duke, a senior captain for Arizona and a pair of sportswriters who would eventually end up being co-workers. Here are their memories of that night:

Jason Williams (now Jay), Duke point guard

I am standing in front of the scorer's table and have yet to set foot on the biggest stage I've ever witnessed. The Metrodome is filled to capacity for the biggest game of the year, the biggest game of my life.

My eyes are closed and my fists are clinched as I sway back and forth in the same position, letting the intensity within my body vibrate more and more. I repeat a quote in my head numerous times to try to get myself in the right frame of mind:

"You are what you repeatedly do. Excellence is therefore not an act but a habit."

My head is tilted downward as I open my eyes and get set to step foot across the line into battle. I remember saying to myself: "This is our shining moment. There is no other way but through. BELIEVE, JASON. This is your time."

The roar of 46,000 was completely blocked as I was dialed into a focused state of mind. All I saw were faces of those who were in my way, trying to stop my brothers and I from achieving a dream in which we had worked so hard to achieve. But as I walked on to the court, I extend my arm with a closed fist to respectfully pound the fist of Richard Jefferson, Gilbert Arenas, Jason Gardner, Michael Wright and Loren Woods.

[+] EnlargeJay Williams
Brian Bahr/AllsportIn the end, Williams found himself cutting down the nets after helping lift Duke to its third national title.

The first half was somewhat of a blur as it ended with us up two points. It was a half in which two heavyweights came out and exchanged blows, neither taking the decisive upper hand.

But the second half was a thing of beauty, at least from my standpoint. Mike Dunleavy and Shane Battier made big-time plays on both ends of the floor. Shane made some unbelievable blocks and kept balls in play as Dunleavy got hot beyond the arc and connected for three massive 3-pointers to help us to pull away.

As time dwindled down on the clock, a feeling of elation came over me, and then Chris Duhon did something that I will never, ever forget. Earlier that season, we had a meeting in our locker room. We all told each other what our dreams were. I said my dream was to take the ball and throw it high into the sky as we won a national title.

During that crazy, chaotic, euphoric moment in time -- as the clock was dwindling down -- CD handed me the basketball and pointed up to the sky.

That's what winning a national title is all about. A band of brothers persevering through a ton of adversity, but still taking the time to remember each other's dreams.

That was one shining moment I will remember the rest of my life.

Justin Wessel, Arizona forward

If you were to ask any Arizona fan what they remember about the 2001 national championship game, you're going to hear two common themes: a "what if" comment regarding Gilbert Arenas' health and some comment degrading the officiating.

Duke is the most polarizing college basketball program I've ever known and every conversation about the Blue Devils eventually consists of some anecdotal evidence of how they get all the calls.

The truth? I dislike Duke for many reasons, and 10 years after the fact I'm still not over it. I dislike the Blue Devils because they robbed me of helping Lute Olson attain his well-deserved second national championship ring. They robbed my teammate, Loren Woods, from claiming redemption for what the NCAA unfairly did to him earlier in the season.

[+] EnlargeJustin Wessel
Todd Warshaw/AllsportAs a fifth-year senior, Wessel came off the bench and was co-captain of a loaded UA team.

They robbed John Ash, Eugene Edgerson and myself of being the only three players in the storied history of Arizona basketball with two national championship rings. They robbed me of getting to stand at midcourt as a national champion and point to the heavens toward my high school coach, who had just passed away the week before.

They robbed me from getting to hug one of my best friends, the team manager, who was dealing with the anniversary of his own personal tragedy. They robbed me from getting to jump the railing to hug my mom, dad, brother and entourage in the first row, just as I did as a scrawny 18-year-old redshirt freshman following the heroics of Mike Bibby and Miles Simon in the 1997 title game. I wanted to collect a second ring so badly as a senior captain, but Duke just happened to be in my way.

I'm still not over the fact that Mike Dunleavy made three 3s in 46 seconds. Or that Gilbert Arenas was injured more severely than anyone knew in the semifinal dismantling of defending national champion Michigan State. Or that the best sixth man in the country, Luke Walton, had a broken thumb which nobody knew about.

Being a fifth-year senior, I felt like I had been part of every possible March Madness scenario. Won a national title as an underdog, lost in the Elite Eight as a heavy favorite, got bounced in the first and then second rounds, and then was back in the Final Four as a senior. All of that experience gave me a feeling it was our title to lose because of all we went through as a family. From being preseason No. 1 and faltering out of the gate without Loren Woods, to the death of Coach Olson's wife, Bobbi, and playing without Coach for the first part of the conference season to now putting it together at the right time.

I remember sitting at the scorer's table waiting to enter the game in the first half, salivating at the thought of getting to guard everyone's All-American, Shane Battier -- and at the same time having flashbacks to all of my dad's practices I attended as a kid, the hours my brother and I spent in the gym, all the plane rides, dinners and study halls with my Arizona teammates. This was my last night as an Arizona Wildcat on the biggest stage and I was going to get my second championship ring. I just knew it.

In the end, things didn't go as planned. But there are so many memories that will stick with me forever. The Final Four is an event of a lifetime and I'll never forget it. I'll never forget seeing Bill Walton beaming as the proudest dad in the building as he took part in our huddle right before we took the floor. Bill gave us advice not as a Hall of Famer or TV analyst, but as our friend's dad. What a moment.

I'm now 10 years removed from that memorable Monday night and no longer intimately involved with college basketball. It's very exciting to see Arizona basketball back on the national scene thanks to Sean Miller and his staff, but my days consist of being a husband and chasing my 1-year-old daughter around our house.

But I do want Coach Miller to know that I will be in the stands in Anaheim, just in case I'm needed.

Trust me -- I'd do anything for another shot at Duke!

Pat Forde, Louisville Courier-Journal (now at ESPN.com)

The funny thing about the Duke-Arizona national title game 10 years ago is that the most memorable play involved a two-Jason pileup near midcourt.

The Wildcats' Jason Gardner outraced the Blue Devils' Jason (now Jay) Williams for a loose ball in the first half. As Gardner pulled it in and bent over, Williams wound up lying on top of his back -- basically bodysurfing on the little point guard.

It looked for all the world like a cataclysmic third foul on Duke's star. Instead, it was a no-call and Gardner dribbled out from underneath him as Billy Packer lost his mind on TV about the officials taking care of the Devils.

That refrain has been heard a few thousand times in the 10 years since. But here's what hasn't been heard often enough:

[+] EnlargeDuke celebrates
Brian Bahr/AllSportThe 2001 Blue Devils are generally regarded as one of the greatest teams of the decade.

Duke '01 has been the best college basketball team of the 2000s.

Jeff Sagarin's computer certainly thinks so. He gives that team a Sagarin rating of 99.52, the highest of any team since 1999. (His second-highest is Kansas 2008, and third is North Carolina 2005.)

But that team doesn't just pass the microchip test. It passed the look test if you watched the Blue Devils play.

Four key guys have been longtime NBA players: Carlos Boozer, Shane Battier, Mike Dunleavy and Chris Duhon. Boozer was a 2008 Olympian, Battier a two-time all-defensive team selection. The fifth and arguably best of them all, Williams, could have been an NBA star if his career hadn't been ruined by a motorcycle accident.

The coaching goes without saying. Mike Krzyzewski was great then and is great now. He will be the game's winningest coach soon enough.

In fact, it may happen in this tournament -- but only if Coach K and the Devils get past Arizona in Anaheim in a 10-year reunion game Thursday night.

Duke shouldn't need the benefit of a bodysurfing no-call to beat the Wildcats this time around.

Andy Katz, ESPN.com

I have a few vivid memories of the 2001 Duke-Arizona national title game.

One was seeing Arizona head coach Lute Olson after the loss to the Blue Devils, just a few months removed from losing his beloved wife, Bobbi, to cancer. Olson was surrounded by his adult children, who absolutely adore him.

Losing the game was the end of a draining few months. Olson had come back to the team after a brief hiatus to grieve. The team became a second home for him as he went through the difficult process of getting back to coaching.

That Wildcats team was loaded, with Gilbert Arenas, Richard Jefferson, Luke Walton, Michael Wright, Jason Gardner and Loren Woods.

My other memory is the number of pros on the Duke squad. Jason Williams, Carlos Boozer, Michael Dunleavy, Shane Battier and Chris Duhon. This team was sick -- just so good at the college level. The Blue Devils were a machine. That program has had plenty of teams filled with pros, but I'm not sure there has been a team that has had as many NBA players come off the starting five.

As for the game, Dunleavy came up huge, and the overall poise of Duke down the stretch was impressive. In the end, Coach K had third national title -- and first in nine years. It would be another nine years before he got another one.

The game was only a decade ago, but it was part of a different era. We won't see as many starting fives stocked with pros the way those teams were in that title game.

That's too bad, because it was truly a sight to behold.