Nine years later, Duke notches another pivotal win

Updated: January 5, 2004, 4:35 PM ET
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

HARTFORD, Conn. -- One of the weirdest parts of "Forrest Gump'' was when Duke upset Virginia, don't you think?

OK ... come to think of it, that actually wasn't in the movie. They're just intertwined for me. I was sitting in the theater watching a late show, still stunned by what had happened that afternoon back in 1995.

If you think Duke's 68-67 victory over Connecticut on Saturday -- a game in which the Blue Devils' only lead came with the final basket -- was weird ... well, it was. But it's not the only entry in the "bizarre, against-all-odds comeback'' department for the Blue Devils.

Nine years ago, Duke did something about as improbable -- an 83-82 overtime win over Virginia in the ACC tournament semifinals. Duke coach Gail Goestenkors smiled in recollection Saturday.

"I think that game was bigger in the overall evolution of our program, because we were still trying to prove we could even be good in the ACC,'' Goestenkors said. "We were playing the No. 1 seed, and for us to get that win and come back the way we did, it was a statement game for us: That we were a program that couldn't just be taken for granted.

"We're at a different stage now. But this game vs. Connecticut is just as important to where we are, because of the atmosphere, because they are so good. To come back against a team like that showed great character.''

In the 1994-95 season, the Blue Devils had displayed real "character'' -- and promise -- for the first time in awhile. They'd beaten defending national champion North Carolina on a last-second shot during the regular season. Duke ended up fourth in the ACC; its best league finish in eight years.

In the ACC quarterfinals, Duke defeated Clemson for just the program's third victory in the history of the league tournament. That gave the Blue Devils their 20th victory of the season.

Then they got their doors blown off by Virginia in the first half of the semifinals, and trailed 40-20. I worked at a Virginia newspaper then, and that first half was the best I'd seen the Cavaliers look all season.

Duke had been to the NCAA Tournament just once, in 1987, but we reporters figured that the Blue Devils were still a lock for the field with their 20 victories. Too bad for them, we said, that they'd go into the big tournament on such a sour note.

And as the second half started, there was nothing to indicate that Duke was going to do anything except lose its 13th straight game to Virginia.

Then things went completely crazy. It wasn't quite like the UConn game, in that the Blue Devils started their comeback sooner in the second half. Back then, the idea of Duke winning with a pressing defense like it did Saturday ... uh, well, let's just say that was a Blue Devil dream for the future.

What Duke could do in those days was run its offense, and that's what the Devils did while Virginia suddenly went into the freezer. Still, the Cavs led by seven with just more than three minutes left.

And then, Duke guard Kira Orr jumped in her rocket ship. She scored 11 points in 56 seconds.

Orr was from The Bullis School in Washington, D.C., the same high school as current Blue Devil Monique Currie. She had speed, which at that time was at a major premium at Duke. It would prove crucial that afternoon.

Virginia post player Amy Lofstedt hit an unexpected 3-pointer with five seconds left to give the Cavs a 73-70 lead. It was over ... except it wasn't. Orr raced down the court, put up a 3 at the buzzer and nailed it. Overtime.

And in the extra period, Orr did it again. With Virginia up by one, she hit a running jumper at the buzzer. Goestenkors that day called it "The greatest win in Duke women's basketball history.''

Another weird coincidence ... Alana Beard had all but one of her 21 points in the second half Saturday; Orr had all 24 of her points after halftime that day vs. Virginia.

Duke, completely out of gas, lost in the ACC final to North Carolina the next day. But then the Blue Devils made the NCAA second round, where they lost a remarkable four-overtime game at Alabama, 121-120.

And while no one game can change an entire program, that victory over Virginia was pretty close. A lot of people who were there in Rock Hill, S.C., that day probably left the arena thinking they'd just seen something important. Duke had turned a corner.

Whether or not the Blue Devils did that on another scale Saturday remains to be seen. Asked if beating UConn was her program's last hurdle, Goestenkors said, "No, winning a national championship is the last hurdle. We haven't done that yet. But beating them is still a big hurdle.''

She didn't want to get giddy, though, especially considering how much the Huskies dominated the game until the every end. Plus, she knows just how well UConn responds to losses. Wounded Huskies are all the more dangerous.

But if that is to be Duke's concern again this season, it won't be for a while. In the meantime, there's another worry. This was just the first in a four-game stretch over nine days for Duke. Florida State visits on Monday, the Devils travel to Georgia Tech on Thursday and then guess-who-in-powder-blue shows up Sunday at Cameron?

"It ends with Carolina,'' Goestenkors said, knowing the Tar Heels will be all the more eager to pour cold water on their neighbors. "I'm really leery of this stretch. My players are exhausted, that's what playing UConn does to you. They have to bounce back right away from this.''

Yeah, but it sure beats bouncing back from a loss. And although Goestenkors is fully aware it's January and not March/April, Saturday's victory was still one to savor and put away in that "try to remember the details'' file -- like that day in 1995.

Hey, didn't Forrest say something about basketball being like a box of chocolates?

Mechelle Voepel is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. She can be reached at mvoepel@kcstar.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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