INDIANAPOLIS -- The play summed up Duke's season.
With 5:09 remaining in the first half of Saturday's national semifinal against West Virginia, Duke guard Nolan Smith missed a three-pointer. Scrapping under the basket, 7-foot-1 senior center Brian Zoubek ripped down an offensive rebound and immediately passed the ball back to Smith, who drained a three to give the Blue Devils a 10-point lead.
"That," Zoubek said, "was a dagger."
Recent Duke teams wouldn't have scored on that possession against a team as physical as the Mountaineers. Recent Duke teams would have been blown off the boards. But because these Blue Devils, with all their McDonald's All-Americans, are willing to do the dirty work, they're one win away from a national title.
Duke, playing in its first Final Four since 2004, rolled to a 78-57 win Saturday against West Virginia. The Blue Devils will face Butler on Monday with the national title on the line. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who extended his NCAA record for tournament victories to 76 on Saturday, will work for his fourth national title and his first since 2001 by reminding himself that, for his players, this is uncharted territory.
"These kids can't identify with a fourth national championship," Krzyzewski said Saturday. "They can identify with their first. So we need to just stay in their moment."
Coming into this season, the Blue Devils knew they had a nucleus of scorers (Smith, guard Jon Scheyer and forward Kyle Singler), but they didn't know if they had the muscle to compete with physical opponents. Krzyzewski hit upon the formula Feb. 13 when he inserted Zoubek into the starting lineup. Duke is 13-1 since, and the down-low combination of Zoubek, power forward Lance Thomas and brother-backups Miles and Mason Plumlee has made life easy for Duke's shooters. The big men allowed Duke to overcome a 1-for-11 shooting performance by Scheyer in a second-round win against Cal and an 0-for-10 shooting performance by Singler in an Elite Eight win against Baylor.
Questions about Duke's six-year absence from the Final Four have rankled Krzyzewski throughout the tournament. During the first weekend in Jacksonville, Krzyzewski suggested Duke teams of more recent vintage peaked, and their best wasn't good enough to earn a trip to college basketball's biggest stage.
"Just because you lose doesn't mean those kids underachieved," Krzyzewski said after a second-round win against Cal on March 21. "They maxed. This team is better."
Indeed. And when the Blue Devils' scorers make their shots -- as they did Saturday -- Duke is nearly impossible to beat. The Blue Devils made 13 of 25 three-pointers Friday, and the big three stuffed the stat sheet. Scheyer scored a game-high 23, Singler scored 21 and Smith scored 19. It also didn't hurt that Duke outrebounded West Virginia by three and grabbed 11 of the Blue Devils' 26 missed shots.
"They got us out of character," West Virginia forward Devin Ebanks said. "We usually are not like that on defense. But we allowed a lot of penetration to the middle. They were able to convert and hit open jump shots, scoring the ball, laying it up. They had a great day, and they were probably the better team today."
Despite Saturday's gaudy scoring output, these Blue Devils have a higher ceiling than their predecessors not because of their offensive firepower but because their big men crash the boards and because everyone plays suffocating defense. Saturday, Singler limited West Virginia star Da'Sean Butler to two first-half points on 1-of-5 shooting, and Duke outrebounded the Mountaineers by seven as the Blue Devils built a 39-31 halftime lead.
Duke's win did not come without controversy, though.
For the second consecutive week, Zoubek received the benefit of the doubt on a controversial charging call on the defensive end of the floor. The call that went against Baylor's Quincy Acy late in Duke's Elite Eight win helped turn the game in the Blue Devils' favor. The play Saturday had more dire consequences.
With his team down 15 and 8:59 remaining, West Virginia's Butler attacked the basket from the right wing. He collided with Zoubek, and Butler was called for a charge as he crumpled to the floor. West Virginia coach Bob Huggins walked onto the court to berate the officials, but he quickly realized his player had seriously injured his left leg. Huggins crouched over a sobbing Butler and whispered words of encouragement. As he spoke, Huggins seemed to fight back tears of his own.
The Mountaineers, who had bounced back from the loss of point guard Darryl "Truck" Bryant to a broken foot earlier in the tournament, couldn't overcome another key injury. Duke rolled to the win, setting up one of the most intriguing championship matchups in NCAA Tournament history.
The Blue Devils, college basketball royalty, will face Butler, the fifth-seeded sentimental favorite from the Horizon League. According to Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, the Bulldogs advanced to this historic title game by playing "smash-mouth basketball" and beating the Spartans.
Despite its glitzy reputation, Duke advanced to the title game by doing the same. "It's a really good team, and it can do something great on Monday night," Krzyzewski said. "That's what we're going to try to do."