Duke outlasts Baylor, 78-71, for first Final Four since ’04

Talk about a pressure-packed game. Neither team led by more than seven points until the 1:36 mark when Lance Thomas followed up a Kyle Singler missed with a dunk and a foul to increase Duke’s lead from five to eight. The follow-up punctuated what was the difference in the game — Duke’s ability to hit the offensive glass. Thomas had eight of the Blue Devils’ 22 offensive rebounds. (Baylor had 16, so the disparity doesn’t seem so big, but five came in the final minute when the Bears were in full catch-up mode.)

Nolan Smith (29 points) and Jon Scheyer (20 points) carried Duke offensively on a night when Singler simply couldn’t buy a bucket. He went 0-10 from the field and turned the ball over four times. In fact, Scheyer scored all of his points from the three-point line (5-10) and the free throw line (5-5). Smith and Scheyer hit back-to-back threes down the stretch to give the Blue Devils a six-point lead with 2:37 to play. (I’m really looking forward to seeing what Smith can do as a full-time point guard next season.)

Duke shot 48% from 3PT, but just 11-38 (29%) from 2PT. This was a result of Baylor’s zone forcing Duke to take open yet uncomfortable shots from inside the arc. Duke was successful offensively when they hit a post player with a pass at the free throw line and that player (usually Mason Plumlee or Brian Zoubek) found the open three-point shooter.

LaceDarius Dunn led the Bears with 22 points, but had just six in the second half before a made three with 0:10 to play. This was something of a coming out party for Ekpe Udoh, who posted 18 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and five blocks. Baylor hasn’t played on national television all that much so Udoh made the most of the opportunity.

In West Virginia, Duke will face a very similar team at the Final Four. The Mountaineers also like to play at a slow pace and have a pretty good 1-3-1 zone that will limit Duke’s playbook. One thing that this Duke team has that the last few teams have lacked is depth on the front line. In Zoubek, Thomas, and the Plumlee brothers, Duke has plenty of beef up front to battle down low. It should be a great game.

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UNC beats Duke to clinch ACC regular season title

It was nip and tuck most of the way, but the Tar Heels got it together late in the second half to pull away over arch rival Duke, 79-71. North Carolina has almost a two-point lead over the next-best team in Jeff Sagarin’s computer rankings (which is the main way that I fill out my bracket), but I just don’t like this team to win it all. They’re sloppy with the ball, have poor spacing on offense and they missed a ton of free throws. But they have so much talent that when the game is tight in the second half, they always seem to be able to put together a run to put the game away. Really, they could win it all or they could lose in the second round to an eight- or nine-seed that plays a good, clean game.

Five Tar Heels scored in double figures, led by Tyler Hansbrough’s 17 points. Conversely, Duke was very content to walk the ball up and run its half court offense, which put the ball into the hands of Gerald Henderson, Jon Scheyer and Kyle Singler, and allowed them to go to work. Coach K really shortened his bench for this game — just three reserves played a total of 19 minutes (and they failed to score a single point).

The win should seal a #1 seed for North Carolina, and barring Duke winning the ACC tournament (coupled with an early round exit by Oklahoma or UConn), the Blue Devils are probably looking at a #2 or #3 seed. Check back tomorrow for a preview of all the major conference tournaments.

#8 Duke beats #9 Wake Forest

In a battle of two of the top teams in the ACC (and in the nation), the Duke Blue Devils jumped out quickly on the Demon Deacons, building a 22-point lead late in the first half before Wake slowly chipped away at the lead. They got within two points with under eight minutes to play in the second half, but Duke managed its lead and ultimately triumphed, 101-91.

Before the game, Wake Forest head coach Dino Gaudio talked up his team’s league-leading field goal percentage allowed, and then Duke went out and set the nets on fire. Duke shot 54% from the field, and Wake was even better, shooting 61% in the loss. It’s not often that a team shoots over 60% and still loses the game.

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Pay attention! #3 North Carolina visits #5 Duke tonight on ESPN

This is how a Duke/North Carolina matchup is supposed to be. Both teams are ranked in the top five, they’re tied for first place (at 7-2) in the ACC, and the winner will have the inside track to the conference championship. The game takes place at Cameron Indoor Stadium, a venue that even Duke haters will admit has set the standard for home court advantage. Duke was one of the first schools (if not the first) to put the student body front and center and that atmosphere has played a huge part in the Blue Devils’ success over the past two decades. (Though it should be noted that, with a win, Tyler Hansbrough could go 4-0 at Cameron in his career, so North Carolina has owned Coach K Court of late.)

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#4 Duke impressive in win at #10 Purdue

Kyle Singler and Jon Scheyer led the Blue Devils with 20 points a piece as Duke rolled over the Boilermakers, 76-60, as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Singler also posted 12 rebounds in the win.

In his freshman season, Singler was forced to guard guys bigger and stronger than he was, and he eventually wore down towards the end of the season. This summer, he forced himself to eat as much as his stomach could handle, and he looks quite a bit stronger as a result.

Duke is starting Nolan Smith at point guard; he beat out Greg Paulus for the starting gig in the preseason. Smith had 12 points, three rebounds, two assists and a steal against Purdue, and looks to be turning the corner as a player. Plus, it helps Duke to have Paulus’ wealth of experience coming off the bench. Smith, Paulus and Scheyer make for a formidable rotation in the backcourt.

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