Duke hadn't been tested in quite a while. It didn't matter. The answers the Blue Devils gave Saturday night were good enough to get them to the national championship game.
"People said all year, 'Can Duke win a close game?'"All-America center Elton Brand said. "I think we showed it today. It really helps our confidence that we could play maybe not our `A' game and still beat a great Michigan State team."
The 68-62 victory was top-ranked Duke's second this season over No. 2 Michigan State and both were by six points. This one gives Duke a chance at its third title this decade when it plays third-ranked Connecticut on Monday night.
"One of the biggest adjustments we need to make for UConn is to get our team rest. This was a banging, physical game," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
Not only were the Spartans physical, he said, "they are good and clean. They are a great team."
No one had come close to Duke for most of the season, let alone in this NCAA Tournament, but Michigan State was within three points with 8½ minutes to play and Brand on the bench with foul trouble.
The guards and defense came through and the Blue Devils (37-1) beat the Spartans for their 32nd straight victory.
"You get so close. You feel yourself coming back," Michigan State guard Mateen Cleaves said. "We were so close but couldn't get over that hump."
Duke, perhaps one of the best teams ever in college basketball, leads the nation with an average margin of victory of 25.9 points; it was 30 per game in the tournament. There was the lone loss to Cincinnati in November, but only three teams managed to stay closer than 10 points the rest of the season.
One of those was Michigan State (33-5), which lost to the Blue Devils 73-67 in December in the Great Eight, but put itself in a position to beat Duke when Charlie Bell's to free throws with 8:33 left made it 51-48.
Brand was dominating with 17 points and 14 rebounds, but he picked up his fourth foul with 10:12 left on a charge drawn by Cleaves in the open court.
"A few kids stepped up for us when Elton sat down," Krzyzewski said.
Guards Trajan Langdon and William Avery sandwiched 3-pointers around a layup by Michigan State's Morris Peterson and then Avery's drive with 6:14 to play had Duke's lead at 59-50.
"We cut it to three then their All-Americas stepped up," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "Trajan hit that big 3, a critical, critical shot. Then Avery, and we were right on him, hits his. But that's what makes them the No. 1 team in the nation."
The Spartans, along with Duke and Connecticut one of three No. 1 seeds to get to the Final Four, were within 68-62 with 17 seconds left when Cleaves scored rebounding his own miss. Corey Maggette added to Duke's foul shooting woes by missing two a second later, but Cleaves' 3-point try with seven seconds left was off and Avery dribbled out the clock.
Brand finished with 18 points and 15 rebounds, while Avery had 14 points and Chris Carrawell 13.
"When we had the 11-, 12-point lead we knew we had to play every possession with all of our heart," Krzyzewski said. "This was a well-earned win by our team."
Morris Peterson led the Spartans, who had won 22 consecutive games, with 15 points; Andre Hutson had 13 and Cleaves 12.
| Elton Brand scored 18 points in Duke's victory. (AP)|
Michigan State finished 26-for-70 from the field (37.1 percent).
"They did a great job of team defense," Cleaves said. "We missed some open shots but give Duke credit for how they played."
This is Duke's eighth Final Four appearance under Krzyzewski and its fifth in the '90s. The Blue Devils won it all in 1991 and 1992. Another would make Krzyzewski just the fourth coach to win three or more.
This is the Spartans' first trip to the Final Four since 1979 when they won the title led by Magic Johnson.
At halftime this looked like another in the long line of Duke blowouts this season with the Blue Devils up 32-20.
The lead reached 36-20 on Avery's breakaway dunk with 18:14 to play, but the Spartans scored 10 straight points to get within 36-30 and they wouldn't go away.
Duke could have had a chance to build a comfortable lead, but went 14-for-27 from the foul line, missing 11 of 24 in the second half.
"When you play that hard you don't know you're tired until the game stops and the ree throws are taken when it stops," Krzyzewski said. "Hopefully, we can get refueled and be at our best Monday."
Duke did finish with a 44-40 rebound advantage - a far cry from the 41-25 advantage Michigan State had in the first meeting -- and it was Brand who made the difference this time with 13 in the first half.
"The difference in the game was still the first-half assault they put on us rebounding," Izzo said. "It was incredible. You have to give Elton Brand credit. "
"I'm pleased we battled back and showed the character that got us here."
Cleaves was 3-for-17 from the field in the first game. He was slightly better this time at 5-for-16, including 2-for-9 from 3-point range, and 10 assists.
The start was eerily familiar for the Spartans. In December, Duke took a 17-2 lead to take control early. This time it was 9-2 before Michigan State scored six consecutive points. But it wasn't long before the Blue Devils had the lead in double figures as Corey Maggette's three-point play gave them a 20-10 lead with 11:38 left.
Michigan State would get as close as six points, 22-16, but the Blue Devils closed the half with a 10-4 run for the 32-20 lead.
The 20 points was the second-lowest total allowed by Duke in a half this season. The lowest was 19 by North Carolina A&T.
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