Duke 80, Syracuse 67
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) _ If Duke had a weakness, it was supposed to be the inexperience of three key freshman who are just beginning to get their feet wet in the NCAA tournament.
But youth hardly fazed Elton Brand, Shane Battier and William Avery, who played more like seniors than freshmen Friday night as the Blue Devils beat Syracuse 80-67 to advance to the South Regional final.
The trio scored 45 points, taking up the slack for struggling leading scorers Roshown McLeod and Trajan Langdon, who were held to a total of 13 points on 4-of-22 shooting from the field.
``This time of year, there’s no freshmen and seniors,″ said Brand, who had 20 points and 14 rebounds. ``Anybody can step up.″
Sloppy in building and then losing a 12-point lead, Duke looked like a national title contender during its decisive second-half surge.
Brand, 10-for-14 from the field, led a 19-3 run the Blue Devils put together after missing 11 of their first 13 shots in the second half to give the heavy underdog Orangemen hope for an upset. Syracuse tied the game at 49 on Elvir Ovcina’s putback with just over 12 minutes to go, but didn’t score again against Duke’s tough man-to-man defense for five minutes.
By that time, Brand had taken over with two dunks and a jumper in the lane during the burst that also saw the Blue Devils get a 3-pointer from Avery and two baskets each from Battier and Chris Carrawell.
``We don’t consider those guys freshmen anymore,″ said Duke senior Steve Wojciechowski. ``They have gone through 35 games with us, and they’re just as experienced as some of the other guys now.″
The victory sends Duke (32-3) back into a regional final for the first time since 1994, when the Blue Devils made their seventh trip to the Final Four in nine years under coach Mike Krzyzewski.
The Blue Devils advanced despite poor games from Langdon and McLeod. Langdon scored seven points on 2-for-13 shooting, while McLeod had six on 2-for-9 shooting.
``I thought we did a good job on the guys we wanted to and were most concerned with coming into the game,″ Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. ``Their freshmen really stepped up.″
Duke improved to 14-1 in games as a No. 1 seed. In 1986 and 1992, the only other years the Blue Devils have been seeded this high, Krzyzewski reached the national championship game.
Syracuse (26-9) extended its 2-3 zone farther out on the floor to disrupt Duke early in the second half and got a lift offensively from leading scorer Todd Burgan, who had 17 of his 20 points after halftime.
Burgan also had 10 rebounds for the Orangemen, who simply lacked the depth necessary to keep up with Duke for 40 minutes. Jason Hart had 15 points and Ryan Blackwell 11.
A layup and dunk by Brand after Syracuse mistakes began Duke’s decisive surge. The Blue Devils scored 11 straight before the Orangemen got a pair of free throws from Etan Thomas that hardly stopped Duke’s momentum.
``At that point, we truly believed we could do it, but we made some silly plays and lost the momentum. That was the key,″ said Syracuse guard Marius Janulis.
As well as the Blue Devils played during the regular season, Duke struggled at times when it relied too heavily on perimeter shooting. That wasn’t a problem against Syracuse.
Langdon, Wojciechowski and Mike Chappell hurt the Orangemen from behind the 3-point line early, but Brand, McLeod and Carrawell also did a good job of getting into the middle of Syracuse’s zone for layups and medium-range jumpers that helped Duke to a 40-30 halftime lead.
Syracuse needed a last-second shot to beat Iona in the first round and survived shooting just 34 percent against New Mexico to get to St. Petersburg, but the Orangemen never fully recovered from missing 11 of their first 16 shots Friday night.
Burgan, one of the keys to Syracuse’s improbable run to the Final Four two years ago, was held to three points in the opening half on 1-for-6 shooting. If not for Hart’s 11 points, the Orangemen may well have been in deep trouble at the break.
Battier finished with 14 points for Duke, which also got 11 from Avery and 10 from Carrawell.