INDIANAPOLIS -- Lance Thomas paused for a second to let out a deep sigh of satisfaction. The Duke senior had waited four years for this moment -- to play in the Final Four, to duel with the type of Big East behemoth that's given him fits in the past -- and simply put, it couldn't have gone any better.
"We needed this game," Thomas said after the Blue Devils' 78-57 demolition of second-seeded West Virginia in Saturday's national semifinal game. "We went for it."
Normally, a No. 1 seed doesn't have to earn anyone's respect. But four years of early tourney exits and the perception of an overly favorable draw have caused the Blue Devils no shortage of critics.
They're aware. And they're addressing it.
"We have a chip on our shoulder," said Thomas. "The tournament hasn't been really good for me my four years here. We're taking that personally."
On Saturday night, they took it out on a West Virginia team that had heretofore put the defensive clamps on every team it had run into this postseason, first in three Big East tournament victories, followed by four straight NCAA tourney wins. No one had beaten the Mountaineers since Feb. 22. No one had scored more than 68 points during the ensuing stretch.
But Duke's Big Three of Jon Scheyer (23 points), Kyle Singler (21) and Nolan Smith (19) nearly reached that mark themselves, combining for 63 points while hitting 12-of-23 three-point shots. The last team to face West Virginia, No. 1 seed Kentucky, made just 4-of-32 treys.
The Blue Devils did virtually anything they wanted offensively, shooting 52.7 percent from the field.
"They played really, really well," said West Virginia coach Bob Huggins. "I've watched a lot of tape. I haven't seen them play that well."
There were signs of the Blue Devils' breakthrough from nearly the beginning. On his team's first offensive possession, Smith, a junior, giddily skipped down the court, like a schoolboy just let out for recess. He seemed to sense the fun that was about to ensue.
But it was his classmate, Singler, who set the tone. Just a week removed from a nightmarish 0-of-10 shooting night in Duke's Elite Eight win over Baylor, the forward scored 14 points before halftime, routinely draining open looks or driving hard to the basket. When West Virginia tried to adjust by switching from man defense to its normally pesky 1-3-1 zone, Smith got an open look and suddenly caught fire, hitting three treys within a 73-second span to give the Blue Devils a 37-24 lead.
But while the Big Three did the most visible damage in the box score, big men Thomas and Lance Zoubek were doing their dirty work. Just as it did a week earlier against Baylor, Duke crashed the offensive glass, outscoring West Virginia 19-7 on second-chance points, including 12-0 in the first half.
West Virginia rallied to cut its deficit to 39-31 at halftime and remained within shouting distance for the first part of the second half -- but never made a run. In a fitting segment, shortly after the Mountaineers climbed back to within five points, 43-38, Singler grabbed an offensive rebound off a missed Scheyer three-pointer and kicked it back out to Smith, who drained his trey.
The 7-foot-1 Zoubek, who finished with 10 rebounds, proved particularly difficult for the Mountaineers -- whose forwards ranged from 6-6 to 6-9 -- to contain.
"Zoubek really asserted himself on the boards," said coach Mike Krzyzewski. "Some of his offensive rebounds really turned into big plays for us when he kicked it out."
Thomas said he could tell from the earliest moments the officiating crew (led by the retiring Curtis Shaw) planned to go easy on the whistles. "The refs were letting us play, and that worked out well," he said. It allowed Duke to show off a newfound display of toughness that its remaining critics likely had to see to believe.
For years, physical teams like the Mountaineers had their way with the Blue Devils (including West Virginia itself in the 2008 tourney). While this year's team features the same core post players, they've taken on a new identity over the second half of this season -- ever since Zoubek moved into the starting lineup in early February.
"This is a completely different team, and we have a completely different mentality," he said. "We base every game on defense and rebounding. We've tried that in the past but we didn't have the confidence. That's what makes this year different -- we believe we can win."
There's only one game left to win.
For the first time in nine years, Duke will play for a national championship Monday night. It will do so against America's reigning darling, Butler, in a game that will see the Blue Devils -- which many doubted would even make it through Saturday -- return to their familiar role of villainous favorite.
It didn't take long into his postgame press conference for Coach K to begin debunking the David vs. Goliath storyline.
"They're one of the best teams in the country," he said of the 33-4 Bulldogs. "I think Cinderella would be if somebody had eight, nine losses and pulled some upsets, stuff like that. ... They've beaten Syracuse and Kansas State and Michigan State."
A Butler win wound be undeniably historic. The Blue Devils have their own agenda.
"You want to leave a mark at Duke," said Singler. "We were in the right position. We're deserving of this. Coach talks all the time about the basketball gods. We must be in the national championship game for a reason."
Perhaps the reason is this wacky and upset-filled tournament needed at least one of pillar of familiarity. The Blue Devils just needed to flex their muscles a little first to prove they're still fit for the part.