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NCAA Basketball Tournament : Duke and Illinois Foil the Big East : Blue Devils Beat Heat From Hoyas in East Regional

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

It had a chance to be the Tom Hanks Memorial Final Four--Big. Big East vs. Big Ten. But Duke wanted to be on top, so it hopped right up to the top bunk.

The Blue Devils cut big, bad, top-seeded Georgetown down to size here Sunday, 85-77, before 19,514 at the Meadowlands, to win the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. basketball tournament’s East Regional and to reach the Final Four for an impressive third time in four years. They will meet Seton Hall in Saturday’s semifinals at Seattle.

In defeating Georgetown and denying Coach John Thompson his 400th career victory, Duke withstood what amounted to--in classic college hoop lingo--one of those “stunning comebacks” you hear so much about. One of those “amazing turnarounds.” One of those “stirring rallies.”

Clock: 5:41 left. Score: Duke 75, Georgetown 61.

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Clock: 3:22 left. Score: Duke 75, Georgetown 73.

That’s how fast things went to hell for the Devils. But the Atlantic Coast Conference club, top-ranked for two months at season’s beginning and now 28-7 for the year, kept cool when it counted most, and never let the Big East Conference champions catch up. Georgetown did not lead or tie the score over the game’s final 16 minutes.

“It was very comforting to always have the lead,” said Duke’s All-American forward, Danny Ferry. “Even when it was only two points.”

For the final 5:41, Duke did not get a basket. Its last 10 points came on free throws.

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Ferry, voted this regional’s most outstanding player for the second consecutive year, combined with guard Phil Henderson and center Christian Laettner for 68 of Duke’s 85 points. And that final team total is significant, at least to the extent that in games this season in which the Blue Devils have scored 80 or more points, their record is 26-0.

The big man Sunday was the big kid from Angola, N.Y., just outside Buffalo, who, for a day anyway, turned out to be the best freshman on the floor. Georgetown center Alonzo Mourning was supposed to be the really fresh frosh of this regional, but the 6-foot-10 Laettner fooled everybody, scoring a career-high 24 points and yanking down nine rebounds.

Laettner made nine-of-10 shots.

Mourning, meanwhile, sitting out 14 minutes for various reasons, including fatigue and the fact that Thompson preferred a smaller, quicker lineup to help the Hoyas catch up, settled for 11 points and five rebounds. He was hardly the intimidator he had been in weeks past.

Still, he did better than most of Georgetown’s regulars. Three starters--forwards Jaren Jackson (who was one of 10 from the floor) and John Turner (who threw an air-ball on an important free throw) and guard Dwayne Bryant (whose foul trouble restricted him to 16 minutes)--combined for a total of three baskets. Only star guard Charles Smith, with 21 points, and reserve guard Mark Tillmon, who had 16, shot well for the Hoyas, who went home with a record of 29-5.

Formidable during the regular season, Georgetown was not itself during the postseason.

“There were a lot of expectations, yes,” Thompson said. “But we worked hard to earn those expectations. It’s only normal that expectations would be high considering what we’d done, but our kids lost to a team that has a very good possibility of winning the national championship. That’s not so bad.”

At gut-check time, the Hoyas showed a lot, then showed a lot less. First came their great rally. They hustled, claimed every loose ball, every missed free throw. They had Duke rattled.

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“You never think the game’s over against Georgetown. I anticipated them coming back,” Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “I just didn’t anticipate them coming back in a minute and a half!”

Trouble was, after working so hard to make it 75-73, Georgetown got groggy or something. What rocks from the Hoyas: A forced jumper by Smith, a missed hook by Mourning, a three-point clanker by Tillmon, another one by Smith, two stone-fingered free throws by Turner. One of those free throws missed everything, with 46 seconds left, in this, college basketball’s Year of the Brick.

In defense of his team, Thompson said: “I wouldn’t use the terminology panic. Some of the kids were a little bit too quick to try for the three-point shot when they should have gone for two, but that’s only normal for kids.”

Part of the reason Duke took such a big lead in the game was that it sank 14 straight free throws over one stretch. The Blue Devils were 26 of 33 at the line.

Well, they always did know how to shoot here.

In 1986, 1988 and 1989, all three of Duke’s East Regional championships have come on this same Brendan Byrne Arena court. These guys think so much of this place, they even left the New Jersey nets alone. Unlike all other Final Four celebrants, the Blue Devils decided not to snip down the basket cords afterward.

“I didn’t know anything about it,” Krzyzewski said. “I had my scissors out.”

Ferry said: “We just decided not to, that’s all. We don’t want to go into the Final Four satisfied. We decided not to act as though we’ve won anything yet.”

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Listening and nodding, Krzyzewski lunged toward the microphone with a hasty disclaimer: “That’s not to say other teams that cut down nets are bad people,” the coach said.

No sense risking hurting somebody’s feelings before the next big game.

Seton Hall should provide a good match for Duke. “I felt before today that Seton Hall was the best team we played all year,” Thompson said. “Seton Hall has been a very, very underrated team. It should be one heck of a ballgame.”

Having said in advance that he would do nothing differently against Duke than he had against other opponents, Thompson changed his mind, bringing junior forward Sam Jefferson off the bench for 23 minutes. It was enough time for Jefferson, who had never played more than 10 minutes before, to contribute eight points and seven rebounds, but also to commit five fouls.

The Hoyas had to do something. Bryant, the maker of five three-pointers last Friday against North Carolina State, got into foul trouble so quickly that he was confined to three minutes’ playing time in the first half. And Mourning, besides appearing “winded” to Thompson much of the afternoon, also suffered a minor knee injury and got poked in the eye. The guy has had better days.

Showing no intimidation, Laettner blocked one of Mourning’s shots early; and Henderson, a beanpole 6-4 guard, amazed everybody with a slingshot dunk over Mourning’s face. The dunk made the score 62-56 and inspired the Dukesters to a run that made it 68-56 with 7 1/2 minutes remaining.

Ferry called it a turning point.

“When you’ve got your skinniest guy out there dunking that hard over the other team’s big center, there’s an emotional lift that’s hard to describe.”

Laettner could describe it.

“I ran down the court screaming and yelling after that one,” the freshman said.

Of Henderson, who scored 23 points, Laettner insisted that leadership was his most valuable donation to the cause. He called Henderson the most composed player on the squad, the one who kept telling his teammates “don’t talk back” when Georgetown players tried to engage them in typical Georgetown scrapping and yapping, of which there was plenty.

Henderson also handled the Hoya press after point guard Quin Snyder fouled out with 3 1/2 minutes to play.

It was 77-73 at that juncture. Georgetown had just made its big run, led by the ball-hawking of Smith. But Duke kept sinking its free throws, and Georgetown kept taking bad shots, and the losers scored only two points in the final 3:03.

The game belonged to Duke, if not the nets.

“We cut them down last time and they sent us the damn bill,” Krzyzewski kidded. “Fifty-seven bucks each.”

Duke clearly is not like other college basketball powers, who believe in winning at any cost.


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