Boston College may have been playing in its first Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship game, but the Eagles and the 200 or so fans cheering for them at Greensboro Coliseum quickly learned what all the old traditionalists have known for some time.
This tournament belongs to Duke.
For the seventh time in the last eight years and a record 16th time overall, the Blue Devils (30-3) won the event so sacred to basketball fans along Tobacco Road, the area where Duke, North Carolina, North Carolina State and Wake Forest all practice the game.
The Blue Devils outlasted the Eagles, 78-76, and wrapped up an NCAA tournament No. 1 seeding and a path to the Final Four that takes them back to Greensboro for the first and second rounds and, if they advance, to Atlanta for the regional semifinals and finals. That's also safely in ACC country.
The game Sunday, though, was never easy for the Blue Devils.
Boston College, in its first year in the ACC after leaving the Big East, played with creative beauty on offense (shooting 57.7% from the field) and a desperately frantic intensity on defense. The Eagles (26-7), who feature three starters from Southern California — senior Craig Smith from Los Angeles Fairfax High, Sean Marshall from Rialto Eisenhower and Jared Dudley from San Diego Horizon — led, 71-68, with less than two minutes to go and 73-71 with 1:28 left.
Smith, a 6-foot-7, 250-pound senior, had given the Eagles the 71-68 lead on a nifty screen-and-roll play run with guard Louis Hinnant. About 20 seconds later, Smith grabbed a lob from Hinnant (20 points). Smith was fouled to keep him from making a layup, so the senior made two free throws, the last of his 19 points. Smith also had 10 rebounds.
But in the end J.J. Redick, Duke's super shooter who had been held scoreless for nearly eight minutes, finished with a flourish.
He made a three-pointer from well behind the line to tie the score at 71-71 with 1:53 left and then another of about 25 feet with 1:15 left to put the Blue Devils ahead for good, 74-73.
Redick had a game-high 26 points and was seven for 11 from three-point range, but he also got a tongue-lashing from Blue Devil assistant Chris Collins, who told Redick he didn't think the senior was playing with "ACC tournament intensity."
Duke had come into the tournament looking bedraggled and carrying a two-game losing streak.
"This has been a huge week for us," Coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "We lost our edge for about two weeks. This week, because we didn't have a known opponent, we had three days of really good practice where it was just about us. Now I think we're going into the NCAAs as good as we possibly can."
Emotions were high, and in the second half Duke freshman guard Greg Paulus dived for a ball. When Paulus got up he brushed shoulders with Hinnant.
Hinnant thought the contact was intentional, and he shoved Paulus. Both teams gathered ominously until Krzyzewski and Eagle Coach Al Skinner herded their players to separate corners.
"It was a hard-fought game," Skinner said, "and I'm proud of our guys. I like where we're headed now."