Only a Sadomasochist or somebody weaned on a diet of Brylcreem and kielbasa can appreciate the way Duke prepares for its annual pilgrimage to the Final Four. In recent years it was enough for coach Mike Krzyzewski, he of the wet look and the never-ending cornball tales of his Polish past, to have his team drop late-season games to Wake Forest and Clemson, not to mention suffer yet another whipping by bitter rival North Carolina. And who can forget Coach K's fashionably early yet wily motivational ploy when, on the way to the 1992 national championship, his team lost the '91 title game by 30 points?
All of this pales in comparison to Krzyzewski's desperate attempts to get this season's Dookies—who at one point were 17-0, averaging almost 95 points an outing and outscoring the opposition by 25—sufficiently clad, glad and raging bad for March Madness. Not only did the Blue Devils go ahead and lose to both North Carolina and Wake Forest, but they also lost both their glue and their glow. After point guard Bobby Hurley was sidelined with a broken bone in his foot and missed five games; after do-everything swingman Grant Hill suffered an ankle sprain that would sideline him for at least two weeks; and after No. 1 Duke, in such an uncharacteristically vulnerable condition, took the floor at Pauley Pavilion to combat No. 4 UCLA on Sunday—"precisely smart scheduling," Blue Devil center Christian Laettner said—all those who appreciate a fair fight, not to mention an equitable NCAA tournament, rejoiced.
For about 37 minutes.
It was just about then, with the score 61-61 late in the second half, that the poised, veteran, coldly efficient defending champs showed why they win gut-busting, nerve-jangling games like this, while the talented yet unsure Bruins revealed why they lose them. With a little less than three minutes remaining, UCLA center Don MacLean, in possession of the ball and trying to free himself through traffic in the lane, was called for traveling. As Hurley set up the Duke offense on its ensuing possession—he had returned four days earlier, making a nine-assist contribution to a 76-67 victory over Virginia—Laettner, who was under the basket on the right side of the key, called for the ball. Well, he didn't exactly call for it. Laettner screamed for it, and he actually pointed to the spot where he wanted it: left hash mark, in front of the Duke bench, 22 feet away, in three-point range.
That is exactly where Hurley passed the ball, where Laettner, who after darting around a screen and getting his defender, Tracy Murray, picked off, caught it and shot it, and where the game virtually end-: ed—64-61 with 2:33 left. "What about that three?" reporters kept asking Laettner following the Blue Devils' 75-65 defensive lockup of a Bruin bunch that had been averaging more than 85 points.
"Which one?" answered the snickering senior, whose perfect features and immaculate sideburns gave the locals a vision of the future of Beverly Hills 90210 whenever Luke Perry gets bored.
O.K., O.K., Duke had other magical moments, many of Laettner's game-leading 29 points and 13 rebounds among them. There was his baby skyhook off an offensive rebound that gave Duke its first lead of the game barely two minutes into the second half. There was Laettner's other trey—the one the UCLA scoresheet playwright described as "24 ft. right wing rainmaker"—which brought the Blue Devils from behind yet again and gave them a 49-48 advantage. There were two old-fashioned trifectas—one-hand push shots—by Hurley, who still can't jump, that gave Duke another pair of late leads. And there was that huge steal and breakaway layup by Hill's replacement, the unsung Antonio Lang, which granted Duke a bit of breathing room, 66-61, with slightly more than two minutes left.
By then the Pauley fair-weatherites were vacating the premises faster than you can say arugula, while old John Wooden, sitting behind the UCLA bench and no doubt reflecting on the night he won his first NCAA championship by beating Duke in 1964, was left to ponder this telling reversal of fortunes. "Terrific game," he would say later. "Score doesn't reflect it."
That's because the Blue Devils, having finally gotten used to having Hurley back in the lineup, outscored the Bruins 16-4 in the final 3:06. Moreover, they made eight of nine free throws during that stretch (after missing 12 of their first 26), and 6'7" senior forward Brian Davis slashed around the ever-beleaguered MacLean for still another killer bucket. In this most impressive of Duke victories—"How tough will these guys be with Grant Hill back?" said a perplexed but still proud MacLean (20 points, 10 rebounds)—Davis exemplified just how deep and versatile the Blue Devils are. While checking UCLA's leading scorer, the 6'8" Murray, who had 22 points and eight rebounds, Davis swaggered for 19 and 11 of his own. "I don't need a lot of attention," he said. "I know what kind of player I am."
One question lingered in the days leading up to this clash of college hoop dynasties, current and past: Did anybody know what kind of significance the game might have? Upon arriving at Wooden Center for his team's practice on Saturday evening, Krzyzewski was asked how "big" he considered the game. He held his thumb and forefinger half an inch apart.
"I don't know what all this hype is about," he said. "We're battered. We've won the ACC. When we play UCLA, we're playing for absolutely nothing. We're not in the same conference. We're not playing for Number One. To me, this is like a great scrimmage. These are the primaries. The election is later."
To get to the ballot box in L.A., however, the Blue Devils not only had to fly 2,300 miles but also had to hoof the most treacherous stretch of the journey—down Bruin Walk past hundreds of UCLA students camped outside Pauley waiting for seats. The students serenaded the interlopers with such clever chants as: "We're gonna kick your ass," "My dog's name is Duke" and "You ain't ——." Los Angeles Times humorist Mike Downey wrote that UCLA students are so mellow "nine out of 10 have absolutely no idea where in the world Duke University is located or whether it was endowed by John Wayne or named after Patty."
"They were too close to us to get really mean," said Laettner. "Not like the Cajuns at LSU. They threw beer cans."
Despite UCLA's traditional laid-back-ness and Coach K's disclaimer, this game had been ultrabig since the Bruins pounded Indiana back in November and proceeded to hold the No. 2 ranking for most of the season. As recently as the weekend before the game, when Duke and UCLA were a combined 42-2 and their meeting looked like a Poll Bowl clash for No. 1, the game was said to be one of the hottest tickets in the history of Los Angeles sports, ahead of even Sumo Babe Pudding Tai Chi. But when UCLA was upset by Notre Dame on Feb. 22 and the Blue Devils lost to Wake Forest the following day, scalpers' prices plummeted from $700 to $150. Ultimately, after the Bruins fell again—last Thursday to crosstown enemy USC, their second loss to the Trojans this season—the only place UCLA was No. 2 was in its own area code.
"By all rights we should still be second in the polls," said UCLA coach Jim Harrick early last week. "Duke and we have the two best records in America—not counting Montana."
Whether Harrick was discounting Montana from the rankings or from America was difficult to ascertain, inasmuch as his priorities seem to vary. Witness his unabashed lobbying for a raise. Said Harrick last month, "I beat Bobby Knight, I beat Lute Olson, I beat Denny Crum, and I should be paid on the same scale as those guys."
But could he beat Coach K? Last Friday the Daily Bruin featured a 16-page pullout section on the hotly anticipated game, and UCLA's campus bookstore displayed a special stock of 200 Duke sweatshirts and T-shirts. Even a pep rally was held. All of which helped produce a Pauley attendance record of 13,023.
The Bruin players denied looking ahead amid all the buildup, but their desultory performance in the 83-79 loss to Southern Cal—MacLean and Murray combined for but five defensive rebounds—spoke volumes. "I'm getting tired of losing big games on national TV," said UCLA captain Gerald Madkins after the Southern Cal loss. "It's hard to contradict those East Coast people who always blow us off. But the fact is, the Pac-10 is tougher than it's ever been."
"Your game with USC was a war," Krzyzewski told Harrick when they met following Duke's practice on Saturday.
"Yeah. Hey, they're more athletic than you guys," Harrick said.
"It was a great game for your conference," said Krzyzewski.
"Yeah. Hey, you guys need any movie tickets?" said Harrick.
But the Blue Devils remained mostly business. They ate dinner in Marina Del Rey on Saturday night, played the game and then caught the red-eye on Sunday night in time to make Monday classes. Oh yes, the Blue Devils did pause after the game to do a team guest shot on Roy Firestone's ESPN interview show, but Duke was within the friendly confines of California for only 34 hours. "Not a lot of time for partying," said Murray.
Not that the Duke players wouldn't have had friends with whom to party. Murray played with Laettner and the Hills (both Grant and Thomas, Duke's 6'5" junior swingman) last summer on the bronze-medal U.S. team at the Pan American Games. MacLean and Hurley palled around at the '89 Olympic Festival. Laettner and UCLA guard Darrick Martin met at Duke during a recruiting visit. UCLA once intimidated teams on name alone; now Duke does. "I don't know any of 'em, but I feel like I do," said Madkins.
One of Krzyzewski's L.A. friends, a TV producer, wasn't quite so generous in his scouting report on the Bruins. "UCLA has two problems," he told Coach K. "Neurological and cardiovascular—no brains, no heart."
In the first half on Sunday, though, neither team exhibited wares to be proud of. At one point the score remained frozen at 16-14 for almost four minutes, and then Duke went without a field goal for nearly four more minutes. On consecutive possessions, UCLA's Sean Tarver shot an air ball and Duke's Kenny Blakeney threw a two-hand overhead pass that sailed into the stands. What was this? The effects of the sun-dappled afternoon outside? Of the UCLA cheerleaders' cat-woman outfits? By halftime Laettner and MacLean had two baskets apiece, their teams had shot a combined 29%, and UCLA took a pitiful 29-24 lead into the locker room.
Duke had handled Hurley's injury exit well. What the Blue Devils weren't handling well was his reentry. They didn't take advantage of their bullwhip on the fast break because they weren't used to his being there. Finally, Krzyzewski simply told his team, "Guys, he's baaaack."
When Hurley joined the race after intermission, and Laettner and Davis began banging bodies, the result was that MacLean got into foul trouble while UCLA's Mitchell Butler (busted lips), Tyus Edney (bruised back) and Tarver (sprained ankle) all came up hurting. "We got what we expected," said Madkins. "They take away a lot of things."
With UCLA ahead 54-50 and Hurley bringing the ball up, Edney, the Bruins' tiny freshman point, made the costly mistake of looking at his bench for instructions. Zip. Hurley drove down the pipe for a lefty layup. At 54-52 Lang's missed free throw was tipped out to Hurley, who fired from behind the three-point arc. Bang, Duke leads 55-54. Moments later, with the score 56-56 and UCLA in a zone, Hurley again let go a trifecta. Swish, Duke 59-56. Duke's poise, confidence, experience and hunger were too much for the Bruins. "We thought of this as an NCAA Sweet 16 game, possibly a Final Four game," Laettner said afterward, "and we want another championship."
Big game, Coach K? Yes.
"Hey, good luck," Davis said to Madkins, in parting. "You guys will get to [the Final Four in] Minneapolis, and we'll see you there."