The best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores. The best thing about Blue Devils is that they win national championships. If you are running the numbers on Duke, that's 2 in a row...on 4/6...over the (partially) Fab 5.
To understand what rough and resilient Duke accomplished over its historic season before its 71-51 spanking of young Michigan on Monday night in the NCAA finale at the Metrodome in Minneapolis, it helps to recall that the Blue Devils stared down their own mortality a week before against Kentucky and won that regional final with a miracle on offense. Then last Saturday night against Indiana in a national semifinal, they stared down their coach's master and mentor and won with a vicious defense. Duke had been No. 1 all season, had taken on all comers, everywhere—at UCLA, at LSU, from sea to shining Shaq—and had run the table.
To think that these mighty veterans were about to let some freshmen whippersnappers, whom they had beaten on the road at Ann Arbor 114 days earlier, deny them their legacy in the championship showdown was folly indeed. Yet at halftime, as Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski stood in a Metrodome tunnel a couple of steps from Michigan's excitable kids, who were jumping up and down and screeching about their 31-30 lead, he could only stare at a stat sheet and wonder how his Blue Devils could possibly recover.
Krzyzewski didn't even look at the Fab Five and their older teammates, probably because he had seen quite enough: visions such as Michigan's 6'9" forward Chris Webber stealing the ball under his own basket and dribbling coast to coast before unloading an outrageous, behind-the-back bounce pass to Rob Pelinka for a basket; such as his own star, center Christian Laettner, suffering through the worst 20 minutes of his life, in which his turnovers outnumbered his baskets and rebounds, seven to two to two. But if these dances with Wolves continued, Coach K must have known there was no way Duke would become the first national champion to repeat since UCLA did it in 1973, the year the Fab Five all were born.
Ah, but youth sometimes wastes the young. Early in the second half, careless third fouls by Michigan's Jalen Rose and Webber squelched the Wolverines' effervescence as Duke took a 39-35 lead. Webber, a true child of Television Nation, beseeched a referee to look at a replay on the giant screen hanging from the Dome ceiling, not being nearly old enough to realize that the NCAA does not review replays of officials' calls. Moreover, a few minutes later, so sharply had Duke's interior half-court defense picked up that when Webber got the ball inches under the rim, he didn't even bother trying one of his trademark smilin' slams but flipped the ball back outside.
As Laettner came alive in his NCAA career-record 23rd tournament game, making four of five shots in the second half to finish with a game-high 19 points and another NCAA tournament career record, for points (407); as guard Bobby Hurley, saddled with four fouls himself, handled the ball and spread out the Duke offense (box, page 24); as forward Grant Hill began penetrating from the wings and flying over the now tentative opposition on the way to 18 points and 10 rebounds, the Michigan defense wilted. "After a foul or missed shot, guys were hanging their heads," said Wolverine junior forward James Voskuil. "We didn't bring enough fight to this game. We weren't having enough fun out there."
Specifically, the infant Wolves were horridly base right there on the baseline, from which Duke, leading 48-45 with just under seven minutes remaining in the game, initiated a run of 10-2. It began with Laettner losing the handle on a drive, recovering it and somehow scooping the ball up and into the basket, and it ended with Hill sledgehammering a dunk after driving along the baseline.
Duke scored on 12 of its last 13 possessions while spinning a virtual shutout at the other end of the floor, holding Michigan to nine baskets and a pitiful 20 points in the second half—and Laettner was at the heart of it all. Ultimately, Hill's penetration opened the way for Laettner to feed on Michigan. "Grant was the key to the game," said Coach K.
While the Duke players' postgame haberdashery included the obligatory message T-shirts—referring to the Wolverines' tendency to trash-blather, the shirts read: YOU CAN TALK THE GAME, BUT CAN YOU PLAY THE GAME?—the Michigan players were teary-eyed but unbowed. "There will never be another freshman class to do this," said Webber (14 points, 11 rebounds). That, along with that wondrous drive-and-pass play, may have been the most accurate Wolverine statement of the evening.
Duke—or rather Laettner—arrived at the Final Four last Thursday accompanied by as much hype as a defending champion-matinee idol has every right to expect. In other words, nearly as much attention as those wild and crazy guys from the Michigan freshman class received.