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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Missed shot gives Duke new life in NCAA tournament

    March 23–The anxiety felt familiar to Nolan Smith late Sunday afternoon.

    A shot was in the air, looking good the whole way, with Duke’s NCAA tournament hopes riding on its outcome.

    Michigan guard Darius Morris had just dribbled 70 feet, juking past Smith on the left wing and stopping a step inside the free throw line at Time Warner Cable Arena to flick a soft runner over the top of Duke forward Ryan Kelly.

    Suddenly, an entire arena held its breath.

    “”I’ve been in that situation before,”” Smith said. “”You’re just hoping that it doesn’t go in.””

    Unlike last April, when Butler’s Gordon Hayward launched a buzzer-beating half-court heave that could have stolen the national championship from Duke, Morris’ shot would have only sent a third-round NCAA tournament game to overtime, tied at 73.

    But still, it was one of those mad March moments that pushes hearts into throats and gives players on both sides that unmistakable rush of adrenaline.

    Morris’ shot looked so on target that outside the 3-point arc, Wolverines guard Stu Douglass clenched his right fist, preparing to celebrate.

    “”To be honest,”” Douglass said, “”when it was in the air, I thought it was going down.””

    Meanwhile, Smith had only a fraction of a second to pray the shot would miss.

    Duke’s wishes won out, with the NCAA tournament bracket bouncers shoving Michigan into the offseason while escorting the Blue Devils to V.I.P. territory in Anaheim for the Sweet 16.

    “”Honestly,”” Duke junior Miles Plumlee said, “”that shot looked like it had a chance. But that’s just how the NCAA tournament works.””

    Adjustment period

    It’s hard to know whether this week’s trek to California will mark Duke’s final road trip of a remarkable 2010-11 season. The Blue Devils will face a resilient and hard-working Arizona squad Thursday night in a West Regional semifinal game.

    And after Sunday’s scare in which Duke almost squandered all of its 15-point lead in the final 10:45, the Blue Devils have plenty of concerns to address.

    For starters, with freshman point guard Kyrie Irving back in the rotation, the Devils are still recalibrating how they play with different lineup combinations on the floor. And Irving himself is trying to set a new bar, hoping to retain a realistic vision of what he can contribute.

    “”We know at this point that any game could be our last,”” Irving said. “”And so I realize that it’s important that I remember to play within myself but also to learn what playing within myself means right now.””

    The 41 minutes Irving played in Duke’s first two NCAA games in Charlotte allowed him to regain confidence and clean some rust off his game.

    But Irving, despite scoring 11 points against Michigan, made only one shot and delivered just two assists, unable to raise Duke’s performance as much as so many outsiders predicted last week.

    Still, Irving’s lone bucket Sunday was huge, a short-bank shot in the final minute that gave Duke a 72-69 lead, a play the freshman completed by attacking the side pocket of Michigan’s 1-3-1 zone and having the wherewithal to stop his dribble before charging into Douglass.

    “”I’ve been in pressure situations before,”” Irving said. “”And I feel like, even though I haven’t played regularly in a while, that I was prepared for that situation.””

    Added Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski: “”He has a knack for doing that, God given. And we try not to hold back what God gave him. We try to put him in positions where he can use his talents.””

    Final answers

    As Duke prepares for Arizona, it’s also worth pointing out that senior Kyle Singler wasn’t exactly dominant in the Devils’ first two tournament wins.

    He totaled 24 points on 9-for-21 shooting. Those are OK numbers but Singler’s 3-point shooting aim is still off. He’s missed 24 of his 28 attempts from long range this month. And against Michigan, the Duke senior even airballed a pair of jumpers.

    Had it not been for the scoring eruption of Smith early in the second half, Duke may not have had enough of a lead to fight off Michigan’s rally.

    But Krzyzewski lauded his team’s mental toughness down the stretch, thrilled the Blue Devils never surrendered the lead, playing with poise in the final 2 minutes even after the Wolverines got within a point.

    “”The game pressure on your team is immense,”” Krzyzewski said. “”I don’t know if there’s any word for it. You can’t practice it. But it’s immense in this tournament when that happens. For our kids to respond like that, that says a lot for our group because again, we didn’t fold. We responded.””

    In the end, it was a shot by Morris that carried the Blue Devils’ fate. That floater missed, allowing Duke to head off toward Disneyland with many emotions.

    “”Mostly we’re excited,”” Smith said. “”We beat a very good team (Sunday). And whenever you beat a very good team like that by playing together, it gives you a lot of confidence and ultimately makes you better. I’m excited that we get to keep playing.””

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