Indianapolis After tossing a big, wet blanket on one feel-good story, Duke gets to go after another.
They don’t call ’em the Devils for nothing.
Jon Scheyer scored 23 points Saturday night to lift Duke, the team so many folks love to hate, to a 78-57 victory over West Virginia and set up a meeting against tiny Butler — a classic matchup of big vs. little, with the national title on the line.
“I think they’re one of the best teams in the country,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said of his upcoming opponent, which has won 25 straight. “I think a Cinderella would be more if somebody had eight or nine losses and pulled some upsets.”
Still, Butler is a No. 5 seed. And in a tournament turned upside down, the Blue Devils (34-5) were the only No. 1 seed to make it to the Final Four.
Their trip, however, wasn’t totally predictable or expected. Duke had gone six long years since its last appearance and hasn’t been to the final since winning it all nine years ago — a veritable century by Tobacco Road standards. Now, this group of Blue Devils has a chance to give Coach K his fourth national championship.
“It’s everything,” senior center Brian Zoubek said. “This is the culmination of four years for me. To have a shot at the championship my senior year, after everything we’ve been through, is a dream come true.”
This was a wire-to-wire pullaway against the West Virginia team coached by alum Bob Huggins, who led the Mountaineers (31-7) on a 10-game winning streak that included the Big East tournament title and ended with a trip to the Final Four.
It was an inspiring journey, the first for West Virginia in 51 years, back when Jerry West wore the old gold and blue.
Huggins returned to West Virginia to bring an elusive title back home to a state that loves its flagship school like few others. But any chance of that ended with 8:59 left, when the Mountaineers’ star, Da’Sean Butler, twisted his left knee and, to add insult to injury, got called for a charge as he crumpled to the ground.
The sequence left him writhing in pain under the basket and his coach, the Huggy Bear, came out to the floor, first to yell at the refs, then to kneel down and tenderly cup the head of his star — the player who, more than anyone, made this run possible.
“He just told me not to worry about it, that I’ll be fine,” Butler said. “And I told him that it hurts right now, but if I can get back out there, then I’ll get back out there.”
He didn’t. The 17-point-per-game scorer finished with 10, and was held to a mere basket in the first half while the Blue Devils were building their lead to as many as 13. Wellington Smith led the Mountaineers with 12 points.
Meanwhile, Duke stayed on a road that could lead to the school’s fourth championship despite the lack of a true superstar or an NBA lottery pick — no Christian Laettners or Shane Battiers or Grant Hills on this squad.
Instead, this is a group of players who do what they do well and fill their roles perfectly.
“We won this game as a team,” forward Kyle Singler said. “It wasn’t just put on my shoulders, or Jon’s or Nolan’s. We won this game from all sides contributing.”
Singler scored 21 points for the Blue Devils and Nolan Smith added 19 points and six assists, a pair of performances that, added to Scheyer’s, showed exactly how good Duke can be when all of the “Big 3” are playing well on the same night.
Zoubek, all 7-foot-1 of him, clogged up the middle, along with 6-10 brothers Mason and Miles Plumlee. Zoubek finished with 10 rebounds, five on the offensive glass.
The Blue Devils won a lot of games this season on defense and rebounding, not that un-Duke-like 44 percent shooting, good for eighth in the 12-team Atlantic Coast Conference.
On Saturday, Duke showed what it can be like when the shots are dropping. Shredding West Virginia’s ballyhooed 1-3-1 zone trap, the Blue Devils made 52.7 percent. Singler, coming off an 0-for-10 performance in the regional victory over Baylor, went 8-for-16. Scheyer, who was 1-for-11 in a win over Cal the first weekend, went 7-for-13.
“We felt comfortable no matter what they did,” Scheyer said.
Not surprisingly, West Virginia had few answers. Joe Mazzulla, who scored a career-high 17 points to lift the Mountaineers to their upset over Kentucky in the East Regional, finished with only four in this one and had to wear a new uniform after Zoubek drew blood while conking him on the head early in the game.
Mazola was starting in place of injured point guard Darryl “Truck” Bryant, who broke his right foot earlier in the tournament and had held out slim hope of playing in Indy. Hard to imagine his presence would have changed much.
The final 10 minutes were played in front of a quickly thinning crowd at Lucas Oil Stadium, the majority of whom had come to see Butler’s 52-50 win over Michigan State earlier in the night.
Those who stayed might not have liked what’s coming next in Monday night’s final. And those who think Duke has been humbled by its championship drought will certainly look at the replays of Miles Plumlee hanging on the rim way too long after a dunk that drew a technical foul, but also put his team up by 14.
A bit of showmanship for a program that routinely has been dissed across America as being too arrogant, too this, too that.
The theme came up again, predictably, this week, on several fronts — including the retraction of an illustration of Krzyzewski on the front of the Indianapolis Star sports section with horns and a target scribbled onto his head.
Coach K’s response to all that: If you want to hate us because we have kids who go to school, graduate, play solid, team ball and win a lot, go ahead.
They do all that, but they’re winning in a different way this year.
They’re without a single superstar, but with an emotional center in Smith, who finds himself back in the city where his father, Derek, led Louisville to a championship back in 1980.
Derek Smith died of a heart attack at age 34, when Nolan was 8, and the guard is just coming around to talking about it.
“It crossed my mind a little bit,” Smith said. “But I’m playing for myself and my Duke team and I’ll let my mom do all the thinking about my father’s footsteps.”
His mother might argue that, given Smith’s history, a title in Indianapolis would only be fitting.
There’s another team, the hometown Butler Bulldogs, who will argue the very same thing.
May the best team win.