Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Miracle Minute

It is a tough moment for coaches, players and fans to face in a basketball game: when to fold up the tents and give up on the victory. There’s always a small voice echoing that old broadcasting trope “stranger things have happened.”

Well, things don’t get much stranger than Duke’s 98-96 overtime victory over Maryland at Cole Field House on Jan. 27, 2001. The 10th-ranked Terrapins seemed assured of knocking off the No. 2 Blue Devils with a 90-80 lead and 1:01 showing on the clock.

Maryland had weathered an opening run by Duke and took control of the game with an 11-0 run in the first half. Terrapins sophomore point guard Steve Blake had thoroughly outplayed his more celebrated Duke counterpart, Jay Williams.

Williams was having one of his worst games in a Duke uniform. He committed 10 turnovers in the first 25 minutes, and the Blue Devils’ leading scorer had only six points (2-6 FGs, 2-5 FTs) when coach Mike Krzyzewski yanked Williams with over 14 minutes left in the second half. After some teaching moments by Coach K, Williams came back in at the 12:44 mark and hit a driving layup. He didn’t have another turnover.

With about two minutes remaining, Williams fouled out Blake (11 points, nine assists) with a wicked crossover. Williams’ two free throws cut Maryland’s lead to 84-75.

The Terrapins had several strategic errors in the game. Just before halftime, Maryland’s Tahj Holden missed a long jumper as the shot clock expired. The players thought the game clock ran out as well, and Maryland headed to the locker room with a 46-35 lead. But the officials huddled and decided to give Duke 1.4 seconds. The Terrapins promptly allowed Duke’s Mike Dunleavy to heave a full-court pass that hit Williams in stride for a five-footer that banked in at the buzzer. Those two points would prove invaluable.

Also to Duke’s advantage were the five fouls committed by Maryland in the waning minutes of the game. The Blue Devils were able to put points on the scoreboard without using much clock. Duke also hit its free throws down the stretch in regulation, while the Terrapins’ Drew Nicholas was 2 of 6 from the line in the final 1:33.

Nicholas made 1 of 2 free throws for that 90-80 lead. Duke didn’t have any timeouts left, and ESPN took the opportunity to acknowledge Blake as the player of the game.

Then came maybe the greatest 13-second offensive explosion in basketball history. Williams cut through the defense for a reverse layup with 53.5 seconds remaining. Then just as play-by-play man Mike Patrick was saying that the Blue Devils “need a miracle,” Williams stole the ball from Nicholas and stepped into a deep three-pointer that cut the lead to 90-85 with 48.7 seconds to play.

Nicholas was fouled before the clock started, and he clanged two shots off the rim. Williams sprinted down the court and drilled another three-pointer over the outstretched arms of Danny Miller with 40.4 on the clock. That’s eight clutch points in 13 seconds.

Duke’s Nate James then took over hero duties, knocking the ball away from Juan Dixon for a steal, and then getting fouled on a tip-in attempt with 21.9 seconds left. James coolly nailed the two free throws that tied the game at 90. The Maryland fans, who were celebrating what would have been the biggest victory of the season one minute earlier, watched with dread as Nicholas’ three-pointer missed at the buzzer.

The Terrapins were shell-shocked, there was no way Duke would lose in overtime. Williams made two free throws to give Duke a 92-90 lead; moments later he got into the lane and dished out for a three-pointer by Shane Battier that gave the Blue Devils the lead for good at 95-92.

It’s hard to think of a more dramatic comeback in such a constrained period of time. The game has also probably provided great fodder for countless coaches who exhort their players not to give up hope, despite the clock and the scoreboard conspiring against them.

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