HOUSTON — Duke senior guard Jon Scheyer fiddled absently Sunday evening with the loop he had cut from the net at Reliant Stadium that represented a lifetime goal fulfilled.
A baseball cap that proclaimed Duke regional champions sat on Scheyer's left knee as the last few reporters hung around the locker room. Scheyer and junior backcourt partner Nolan Smith had just shredded Baylor's zone defense, combining for 49 points to lift Duke to a 78-71 win in the NCAA tournament's South Regional final.
The win propelled top-seeded Duke (33-5) into its first Final Four in six years. The Blue Devils will meet West Virginia, the No. 2 seed out of the East Regional, at about 8:30 p.m. Saturday in the NCAA semifinals in Indianapolis.
"It's a dream come true," Scheyer said. "It just is. To get that win, we had to work our butts off for it, and it felt great."
Smith and Scheyer carried the Blue Devils, combining for nine of Duke's 11 3-point goals against a Baylor zone defense that held Duke to 11-for-38 shooting from two-point range.
With a career-high 29 points, Smith kept talented No. 3 seed Baylor (28-8) from running away with the win early. He also put Duke ahead to stay after going to the free-throw line with the Bears leading by a point with 3 minutes, 36 seconds remaining.
Smith made the first free throw to tie the score but missed the second. Teammate Lance Thomas tipped the rebound free and dug the ball off the floor. He passed quickly to Smith open in front of the Duke bench.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski immediately yelled for Smith to shoot it. He did, sinking a 3-pointer that gave Duke the lead, and then shot Krzyzewski a smile.
On Duke's next possession, Brian Zoubek passed out to Scheyer in the short corner opposite the Blue Devils' bench. Scheyer, who had 20 points but has struggled with his shooting for most of the tournament season, drilled a 3-pointer and ran back down the court pumping his fist.
Duke led 67-61 with 2:38 remaining, and Indianapolis was coming into focus.
"That kind of took the wind out of them a little bit," Zoubek said. "... I think it was a little bit of a dagger."
For much of the game, it appeared that Baylor might put the dagger into Duke because of Blue Devils forward Kyle Singler's struggles. Singler was held to five points - all on free throws - and he missed all 10 of his field-goal attempts.
He spent much of the game chasing around shooting guard LaceDarius Dunn, who led Baylor with 22 points but missed six of his eight 3-point attempts against Singler, who stands 6 feet 8.
But Singler, who usually scores easily inside against smaller defenders, couldn't get a shot to fall against a defense that started players measuring 7-0, 6-10 and 6-10.
"It was frustrating," Singler said. "But the good sign for our team was we played through it. ... It didn't bother us at all. We were able to keep playing, and it shows the closeness of our group."
Krzyzewski, too, mentioned the closeness and character of Duke's players as a factor that helped a good team that's not a great team get to the Final Four.
This will be Krzyzewski's 11th Final Four trip in 30 seasons at Duke. It comes after four years of steady improvement in Duke's won-loss record and NCAA tournament results over the careers of seniors Scheyer, Zoubek and Thomas.
"It's as close a team as I've had," Krzyzewski said. "You want great things to happen for people who are great with us. I mean, they've been spectacular to coach. ... I'm ecstatic about it."
As the buzzer sounded, Krzyzewski walked immediately over to Baylor coach Scott Drew to shake his hand. Duke's players jumped in the air, bumped chests and met at halfcourt, their shouting piercing the quiet of the mostly pro-Baylor crowd of 47,492 exiting into the Texas evening.
For Scheyer, it was the culmination of a steady climb over four years. For Smith, it's a chance to return to the site of the 1980 Final Four, where his father, the late Derek Smith, won the NCAA title with Louisville.
Now it's Nolan Smith's turn, and he can't wait.
"This team from the beginning of this tournament has been living in the moment, really enjoying every single game, and you know, just playing hard," Smith said. "And it just feels great right now."
firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-829-8942