Only a Sadomasochist or somebody weaned on a diet of Brylcreem and kielbasa can appreciate the way Duke prepares for its annual pilgrimage to the Final Four. In recent years it was enough for coach Mike Krzyzewski, he of the wet look and the never-ending cornball tales of his Polish past, to have his team drop late-season games to Wake Forest and Clemson, not to mention suffer yet another whipping by bitter rival North Carolina. And who can forget Coach K's fashionably early yet wily motivational ploy when, on the way to the 1992 national championship, his team lost the '91 title game by 30 points?
All of this pales in comparison to Krzyzewski's desperate attempts to get this season's Dookies—who at one point were 17-0, averaging almost 95 points an outing and outscoring the opposition by 25—sufficiently clad, glad and raging bad for March Madness. Not only did the Blue Devils go ahead and lose to both North Carolina and Wake Forest, but they also lost both their glue and their glow. After point guard Bobby Hurley was sidelined with a broken bone in his foot and missed five games; after do-everything swingman Grant Hill suffered an ankle sprain that would sideline him for at least two weeks; and after No. 1 Duke, in such an uncharacteristically vulnerable condition, took the floor at Pauley Pavilion to combat No. 4 UCLA on Sunday—"precisely smart scheduling," Blue Devil center Christian Laettner said—all those who appreciate a fair fight, not to mention an equitable NCAA tournament, rejoiced.
For about 37 minutes.
It was just about then, with the score 61-61 late in the second half, that the poised, veteran, coldly efficient defending champs showed why they win gut-busting, nerve-jangling games like this, while the talented yet unsure Bruins revealed why they lose them. With a little less than three minutes remaining, UCLA center Don MacLean, in possession of the ball and trying to free himself through traffic in the lane, was called for traveling. As Hurley set up the Duke offense on its ensuing possession—he had returned four days earlier, making a nine-assist contribution to a 76-67 victory over Virginia—Laettner, who was under the basket on the right side of the key, called for the ball. Well, he didn't exactly call for it. Laettner screamed for it, and he actually pointed to the spot where he wanted it: left hash mark, in front of the Duke bench, 22 feet away, in three-point range.
That is exactly where Hurley passed the ball, where Laettner, who after darting around a screen and getting his defender, Tracy Murray, picked off, caught it and shot it, and where the game virtually end-: ed—64-61 with 2:33 left. "What about that three?" reporters kept asking Laettner following the Blue Devils' 75-65 defensive lockup of a Bruin bunch that had been averaging more than 85 points.
"Which one?" answered the snickering senior, whose perfect features and immaculate sideburns gave the locals a vision of the future of Beverly Hills 90210 whenever Luke Perry gets bored.
O.K., O.K., Duke had other magical moments, many of Laettner's game-leading 29 points and 13 rebounds among them. There was his baby skyhook off an offensive rebound that gave Duke its first lead of the game barely two minutes into the second half. There was Laettner's other trey—the one the UCLA scoresheet playwright described as "24 ft. right wing rainmaker"—which brought the Blue Devils from behind yet again and gave them a 49-48 advantage. There were two old-fashioned trifectas—one-hand push shots—by Hurley, who still can't jump, that gave Duke another pair of late leads. And there was that huge steal and breakaway layup by Hill's replacement, the unsung Antonio Lang, which granted Duke a bit of breathing room, 66-61, with slightly more than two minutes left.
By then the Pauley fair-weatherites were vacating the premises faster than you can say arugula, while old John Wooden, sitting behind the UCLA bench and no doubt reflecting on the night he won his first NCAA championship by beating Duke in 1964, was left to ponder this telling reversal of fortunes. "Terrific game," he would say later. "Score doesn't reflect it."
That's because the Blue Devils, having finally gotten used to having Hurley back in the lineup, outscored the Bruins 16-4 in the final 3:06. Moreover, they made eight of nine free throws during that stretch (after missing 12 of their first 26), and 6'7" senior forward Brian Davis slashed around the ever-beleaguered MacLean for still another killer bucket. In this most impressive of Duke victories—"How tough will these guys be with Grant Hill back?" said a perplexed but still proud MacLean (20 points, 10 rebounds)—Davis exemplified just how deep and versatile the Blue Devils are. While checking UCLA's leading scorer, the 6'8" Murray, who had 22 points and eight rebounds, Davis swaggered for 19 and 11 of his own. "I don't need a lot of attention," he said. "I know what kind of player I am."
One question lingered in the days leading up to this clash of college hoop dynasties, current and past: Did anybody know what kind of significance the game might have? Upon arriving at Wooden Center for his team's practice on Saturday evening, Krzyzewski was asked how "big" he considered the game. He held his thumb and forefinger half an inch apart.