With Sunday’s win over Baylor, Coach K reached his 11th Final Four as Duke’s head coach.
Photo Courtesy: David Bradley, Duke Basketball
HOUSTON, Texas — Duke and Coach K are back in the Final Four, although it's going to be a new experience to this group of Blue Devils.
Nolan Smith scored a career-high 29 points, Jon Scheyer sank five 3-pointers and added 20 and top-seeded Duke restored some order to the topsy-turvy NCAA tournament on Sunday with a 78-71 win over Baylor in the South Regional final.
The Blue Devils (33-5) are back in the national semifinals for the first time since 2004, a six-year drought that was the longest since Mike Krzyzewski made his first Final Four in 1986.
They won't have to answer questions about that anymore.
"I don't know if it's a relief," junior forward Kyle Singler said, "but it's nice that no one can say that we haven't been to a Final Four in so many years."
The Blue Devils became the only No. 1 seed to advance to Indianapolis and earned their 11th Final Four berth under Krzyzewski. They'll play West Virginia (31-6) in Saturday's second semifinal.
"They got me to a Final Four, finally," Krzyzewski said. "It's not about the moments that I've been in, it's the moment that your players put in right now. I'm really happy for this group. It's something that will be part of your life forever."
Duke also ended Baylor's inspiring run to redemption. LaceDarius Dunn had 22 points and Ekpe Udoh scored 18 for the third-seeded Bears (28-8), whose program was in shambles when coach Scott Drew took over in the wake of murder and scandal less than seven years ago.
Drew rebuilt Baylor from the ashes to the brink of its first Final Four appearance since 1950. After setting a school record for victories, maybe the program will finally be recognized more for its success, than the tragic summer of 2003.
"The toughest part of every season is always just the thought that it's the last time you're going to get a chance to coach the team, the last chance they're together," Drew said. "That's always the toughest, especially when it's been a real close team, and a team that obviously has done wonders for our program and the school."
The Blue Devils have won 11 of their last 12 regional finals under Krzyzewski, but haven't won a national title since 2001. The program has waited a long time to get this close again, after losing in the regional semifinals in three of the previous five seasons.
"Gratifying is an understatement," senior forward Lance Thomas said. "We have worked so hard to get here, we are so excited to get here. Every time we've been to the tournament, it's been extremely tough for us."
Duke took the lead for good after Thomas grabbed a key offensive rebound with 3:36 left. Thomas passed back to Smith, who hit a 3-pointer from the right wing to put Duke up 64-61.
The bigger Blue Devils pulled down 23 offensive rebounds that led to 23 second-chance points, the difference in the game. Duke improved to 18-2 this season when finishing with at least 15 offensive boards.
"It's definitely will and perseverance," Thomas said. "We've been through situations this season when it's been tough to score, tough to get a stop, but it hasn't broken us. The fact that we're in the position we're in speaks to that."
Scheyer extended the lead to six with his fifth 3-pointer.
"Those two 3s in a row, by Nolan and then Jon, those were big-time plays," Krzyzewski said. "The big guys kicked it out and those are the best 3s to take."
The Blue Devils made 11 of 23 3-pointers (48 percent) — and shot only 11 of 38 from inside the arc. But they pulled away down the stretch and didn't need a miracle shot on the 18th anniversary of Christian Laettner's game-winner against Kentucky in the 1992 tournament.
"This team, from the beginning of the tournament, has been living in the moment," Smith said. "And it just feels great right now."
Many of Baylor's players, meanwhile, were in tears after coming up short. Playing within a 4-hour drive of their campus, the Bears couldn't ride the momentum from a roaring crowd of their fans like they did in a 72-49 win over Saint Mary's in Friday's regional semifinal.
This time, the storybook was not meant to be.
"It's not over for this program. It was a great season," a misty-eyed Dunn said. "Teammates should hold their head up high and be proud of the things we accomplished this year."