In retrospect, it's usually not difficult to see the key moment in a big game, if there is one. Once the winners are cutting down the nets it's easy to point to that play where the game turned and never looked back. It's rare when that turning point is so obvious you realize it as it happens.
But that's how obvious it was in Duke's 82-72 win over Arizona for the NCAA championship Monday night. The play was right there for everyone to see.
The teams had been about even through the first 24 minutes or so, with first Arizona and then Duke clinging to a small lead. Then the Blue Devils went on an 11-2 run, thanks mostly to Mike Dunleavy's three straight 3-pointers, the last coming after a spectacular block and save by Shane Battier, for a 50-39 lead.
But Arizona snarled back. A Richard Jefferson three, a Gilbert Arenas layup, a Michael Wright layup, and then, following an uncharacteristic mental lapse by Duke's Jason Williams, who had an outlet pass clonk him on the side of the head as he blithely trotted downcourt, a Loren Woods hook shot. A 9-0 run for 50-48 and all the momentum, with the huge Metrodome crowd, nearly 46,000, squarely behind the underdog Wildcats.
After a miss by Duke, Arizona came down with a chance to tie or take the lead. The crowd would have exploded. Arizona would have been flying. Jefferson took an inbounds pass, found some space on the low block -- and missed an uncontested five-footer.
Here's what I wrote in my notebook: "Jffsn miss chip shot for tie. Duke wins." There was still 13:25 to go.
I'm not taking credit for prescience here. I'm saying it was plain as day. Billy Packer, CBS's color guy, saw it too. "Biiiiiig miss on the inside," he said.
Duke is one of those teams. The Blue Devils are good, but more than that, they know how to win. They have their weaknesses, but you can't afford to miss an opportunity against them. When there's money on the table and you have a chance to grab it and don't, it won't be there the next time you reach for it.
On the other end, Chris Duhon found Dunleavy alone under the basket for 52-48. Then a steal by Casey Sanders, an outlet to Dunleavy and a layup, and it was 54-48 with 12:15 left. Arizona never got closer than three points again.
Which is not to make a goat of Richard Jefferson. He had 19 points, eight rebounds and three assists, and he was the only Wildcat to hit a 3-pointer. Jefferson was 4-for-8 from beyond the arc. His teammates were 0-for-14. With the backcourt of Arenas and Jason Gardner struggling (a combined 6-for-27 shooting, 0-for-12 from long range), Jefferson and Woods (22 points, 11 rebounds, four blocks) kept Arizona in the game.
Early in the game the Wildcats looked like they could score at will inside, but Duke tightened up in the second half, and, not entirely because of Duke's defense, Arizona began missing inside shots, even when the Wildcats got good looks. It wasn't as streaky a game as most Tournament games have been, but it was streaky enough for Duke, which had only one bad stretch while Arizona had two, sandwiched around Duke's. After Jefferson's miss failed to extend the 9-0 Arizona run that negated Duke's 11-2 stretch, the Blue Devils went on a 14-5 run for an 11-point lead
Duke did it without their stars, but then in the end they didn't. Battier had 18 points and 11 rebounds, but somehow seemed not to be having a big night. Williams clanked up 2-for-11 on 3-pointers. Going in, those two had appeared to be the difference between the teams, but Dunleavy's trio of 3-point bombs had been a bigger punch than anything the stars had mustered.
As the clock wound down, though, there they were. With Duke up 77-72, Jefferson had missed an ill-advised three. Battier set a screen and Williams came around it and buried a 3-pointer for an eight-point lead with 1:45 to go. The money was no longer on the table, and Duke was ready to cut down the nets.
Play of the day: For sheer athleticism, it has to be Battier's block on Gardner. The Arizona guard had taken an inbounds pass and dribbled the length of the court. He appeared to have a lane to the basket for a layup, but Battier, lurking in the paint, timed it perfectly, swooped in behind Gardner, made the block, avoided the foul, saved the ball from going out of bounds and started a fast break with a no-look pass. At the other end Dunleavy hit his third straight three to complete an 11-2 run.
Best line: "I frankly thought Jason Williams fouled out twice with pushoffs and it didn't happen. The officiating didn't get us. Duke got us." -- Lute Olson, summing it up nicely.
The officials did miss several calls, including one play in which Williams was literally riding on the back of Gardner, both feet in the air, and not whistled for a foul. And the misses did seem to go Duke's way a little more often than they went Arizona's, but Duke didn't win because of the officiating.
Worst line: "With the exception of the Duke fans, it seems like all the fans are in favor of Arizona." -- Billy Packer.
Interesting point, Billy. Thanks.
The bracket: Your humble servant picked the winner, Duke, and the runner-up, Arizona, as well as one of the other two Final Four teams, Michigan State. (I also picked Iowa State to go to Minneapolis? Remember Iowa State? Ahem.)
All told I picked 44 winners in the 63 games (I ignored that play-in game): 24 in the first round, then nine, five, three, two and one in the subsequent rounds. If that would have been good enough to win your office pool, feel free to send me a few bucks.