Mental toughness puts Duke in Final Four

Staff columnistMarch 28, 2010 

STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Duke's Mike Krzyzewski waves the South Regional net after the Blue Devils beat Baylor 78-71 to advance to the Final Four in Indianapolis.

CHUCK LIDDY — CHUCK LIDDY-cliddy@newsobserver.com

— It took a while to come completely into focus, but now we know why Mike Krzyzewski and his Duke players went to the ACC Tournament on such an intense mission March 11-14 in Greensboro.

On the surface, there wasn’t much pressure on the Blue Devils to do anything in that event. They had an NCAA bid and a high regional seed locked long before regular season’s end.

At Greensboro, no one would have blamed Duke for showing up, winning a game or two and turning in early to rest for an NCAA grind that was expected to be dominated by Kansas, Kentucky and the Big East Conference.

But Krzyzewski has been doing this coaching stuff long enough to understand that March is all about doing the things you don’t have to do and maybe don’t really want to do. It’s about winning against quality opposition with your B-game. It’s about entering the event in full psychological battle gear.

“We used Greensboro to get better. That was what we emphasized as a team, and we got better there,” Krzyzewski said.

The Devils don’t spend so much talking about mental toughness just to exercise their tongues. They live the words they speak.

“You can’t just wait to turn it on when you’re cornered,” Duke guard Nolan Smith said after the Devils put away Georgia Tech in a tight, tough game to claim the league trophy.

That post-season inner toughness served as the team’s passport to the school’s 15th Final Four.

The Devils will make the trip after having survived Baylor on Sunday, 78-71, in a South Regional championship that amounted to a road game.

With almost 50,000 fans in Reliant Stadium and virtually all of them screaming for the Bears (28-8), Duke had to win on probably the worst day of Kyle Singler’s career. The star junior forward missed all 10 of his field-goal attempts, was held to three points and labored to defend LaceDarius Dunn.

But when Duke (33-5) needed Singler to make free throws and provide late-game stability, he came through.

That’s what being a warrior team is all about.

With Singler off key, Nolan Smith exploded for 29 points against one of the toughest zones in the country. Jon Scheyer, who had struggled through the tournament with his shooting touch, sank five 3-pointers.

Then, there were the little things that 61 other NCAA teams either didn’t or couldn’t do with Duke’s consistency.

Lance Thomas had nine rebounds and two assists Sunday. Brian Zoubek had nine rebounds, two assists, two steals and drew a late-game charge that was instrumental. Reserves Andre Dawson, Miles Plumlee and Mason Plumlee hit four of five shots and combined for eights points in the first half. The Plumlees teamed for 12 rebounds.

Krzyzewski must have said a hundred times during the season that this team was not a great one, but a good one that has great character and a willingness to work overtime to improve. He said it again Sunday.

But as the Devils go home to celebrate a little and prepare a lot for Saturday’s game against West Virginia (31-6), they no longer are the same team they were in regular season.

They’re better than a “good” team now. A mere good team would not have been able to beat Baylor.

caulton.tudor@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8946

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