ATLANTA -- There will be no Duke-Carolina III in the ACC tournament final, and that's just fine with Gerald Henderson.
"I wouldn't say it is disappointing, because we don't play our season to beat them," the Duke junior said. "We play to win championships."
Duke is in position for a championship after topping a game Maryland squad, playing its third game in three days, 67-61 (RECAP | BOX). The Blue Devils will have to go through Florida State to capture its first ACC tournament since 2006 after the Seminoles knocked off No. 1 North Carolina 73-70 in a pulsating opener at the Georgia Dome on Saturday (RECAP | BOX).
The bracket has unfolded nicely for third-seeded Duke, as No. 2 seed Wake Forest lost to Maryland and North Carolina bowed out in the semifinals. A Boston College-Maryland-Florida State road to the title looked unlikely before the weekend, but that is the road handed to Duke.
"When you go into a tournament, you can never look ahead, and you try to talk to your guys about that," said Duke assistant Chris Collins. "You think you are going to play this team and that team. You have to play the game in front of you and see how that shakes out."
Maryland, which felt like it clinched an NCAA bid Friday night, battled with Duke for 32 minutes with a disruptive defense that held the Devils in check. Finally, Duke put together a 9-0 run to push its lead to 56-43 with 5:35 to play, and Maryland didn't have the firepower to answer back. Duke won despite shooting just 36.4 percent from the floor, including a combined 6-for-26 from Henderson and Kyle Singler.
"The last two games, we haven't clicked well offensively," Collins said. "Our defense is back at a high level. I'd like to see our offense join it."
Things will not get any easier against a Florida State squad that has size inside and All-World Toney Douglas in the backcourt. Douglas grew up in Jonesboro, Ga., about 20 miles south of the Georgia Dome, and his brother Harry is a kick returner and wide receiver for the Atlanta Falcons. Toney is putting on his own show in the dome this weekend, pouring in 25 points against Georgia Tech on Friday, and scoring 27 against North Carolina, including the go-ahead free throws with 47 seconds left.
"I can't even count how many people were here for me," Douglas said. "My phone is going to be ringing off the hook."
Florida State was stung by North Carolina in late January when Ty Lawson hit a running three-pointer at the buzzer, but this time Lawson was sitting on the bench with a sprained toe. The Tar Heels looked to Tyler Hansbrough to rescue them, but the big man came up empty after a sensational second half. Hansbrough caught the ball in the low post with 20 seconds left trailing by one, but turned it over, leading to two Florida State free throws. When Wayne Ellington and Danny Green missed desperate threes in the closing seconds, Florida State erupted onto the floor, celebrating its first appearance in the ACC title game.
"We've been waiting on this ever since they beat us on that buzzer-beater in Tallahassee," said Solomon Alabi, who had 11 points, five rebounds and two blocks. "Going to the ACC championship and beating the No. 1 team? It's history. It feels good."
The North Carolina spin was that despite two shaky games in Atlanta this weekend, the Tar Heels are better because of the experience gained without Lawson on the floor and they are ready for the NCAA tournament. Coach Roy Williams said if this were the Final Four, Lawson would have tried to play, but they are holding him out as long as they can. Freshman Larry Drew showed flashes at the point with a couple of great moves in transition, but Williams only played him seven minutes in the second half -- letting Bobby Frasor handle the majority of Lawson's minutes.
A reporter pointed out the Heels, who were also concerned with Deon Thompson's gimpy ankle, will get an extra day's rest not playing in the ACC final, but Williams wasn't biting
"I've never found a silver lining in that," he said.
So it will be an unlikely final on Sunday between a team with 16 ACC titles and another with zip. It is the just the second time in 51 years the top two seeds are not around on Sunday, but the matchup should still be tight. Duke swept Florida State this year, but Singler said, "We could have easily lost both games."
"With their size, you are not going to get many layups," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "That means you better shoot well and you better defend. You need you're A-plus game to beat them, and fortunately we had it when we played them this year."