With Domzalski no longer a factor, it was crucial for Newton to continue to play at a high level. Through 13 games, Newton was averaging 16.2 points and 8.2 rebounds. He appeared to be heading for an All-ACC-level season.
But his senior season began to unravel at Clemson, against one of the best teams in Clemson history. The Tigers opened their season by defeating defending champion Kentucky 79-71 in overtime, in Indianapolis. Clemson started 12-1 and reached second in the AP poll.
Still, Duke had Clemson on the ropes late, a 76-70 lead with a minute left. Until Newton twice fouled Clemson’s Terrell McInytre 40 feet from the basket.
McIntyre was an 80 percent foul shooter that season. Not the guy you wanted to send to the line.
He made all four foul shots, the last with eight seconds left. Duke didn’t call time out and Wojciechowski pushed the ball up court, where Newton was wide open for an uncontested layup.
Newton fumbled the ball out of bounds.
Clemson won 86-82 in overtime.
Newton played 36 minutes against Clemson. A few weeks later, he was barely getting off the bench and then he wasn’t getting off the bench at all.
Duke came home to face Duncan and the second-ranked Deacons. It was close for awhile but the visitors used a 21-9 run midway through the second half to pull away.
The final was 81-69. Duncan led the way with 26 points and 14 rebounds, while Wake hit seven of eight from beyond the arc in the second half.
McLeod led Duke with 14 points and 8 rebounds. Newton had 7 points and 5 rebounds against Duncan, a player he had infamously called “passive” and “soft” a few years earlier.
Don’t poke the bear.
All of a sudden, Duke was 2-2 in the ACC and looking up at 4-0 Wake Forest, 4-0 Clemson and 4-0 Maryland.
Duke got wins over Campbell, UNC-Greensboro, Virginia and NC State, the latter two wins keeping Duke in contact in the ACC at 4-2.
But Duke fell at Maryland. 74-70. The Terps were one of the nation’s surprise teams. Unranked at the beginning of the season, they started 17-2 and got as high as fifth in the AP poll. They overcame a 22-point deficit to defeat North Carolina in one of those wins.
McLeod gave Duke 22 points and 11 rebounds in College Park but didn’t get much help. Capel was Duke’s next-highest scorer, with 11.
The loss dropped Duke to 4-3 in the conference.
The Tar Heels were next. This would turn out to be Dean Smith’s last season at the helm, although no one knew it at the time. Carolina had started ACC play at 0-3, including an 81-57 loss at Wake Forest. But they had climbed to 3-4 in ACC play. And Duke hadn’t come out on top against them since February 3, 1993, when Bobby Hurley’s 20 points led Duke to an 81-67 win in Cameron.
The Tar Heels presented a matchup nightmare for Duke. They started 7-3 senior Serge Zwikker, 6-8 sophomore Antawn Jamison and 6-8 sophomore Ademola Okulaja in the front court, with 6-6 Vince Carter, Shammond Williams and Ed Cota sharing minutes at guard.
Duke couldn’t match that kind of size and Krzyzewski didn’t even try. Instead he started McLeod, Carrawell, Capel, Langdon and Wojo.
Krzyzewski was willing to trade size for quickness and shooting. It also put his five best players on the floor. Langdon (1st team) and Wojciechowski (2nd) team were on their way to making All-ACC, Langdon after a medical redshirt in 1996, Wojciechowski after spending his first two seasons at Duke coming off the bench.
But Capel may have been the most compelling story. It would have been easy for him to have gone into a funk after that Florida State fiasco. Instead, he went back to work. His “I’m back” game came January 15, when he hit 8 for 10 (19 points) against UNC-Greensboro. Two games later he scored 25 points, leading Duke to a 70-55 win at NC State.
Capel had earned that starting nod.
Duke had no illusions of winning the rebounding wars but they hoped to keep it close and make it up with 3-pointers and defense.
All parts of the plan worked. McLeod battled Carolina’s giants inside and grabbed 11 rebounds. Carolina only out-rebounded Duke 35-25.
Duke made up the deficit by notching 18 steals and forcing 25 turnovers. Carolina’s talented freshman point guard Ed Cota had eight of those turnovers.
Duke had 14 turnovers.
The game could hardly have started better for Duke. The Tar Heels turned it over on their first five possessions, Capel hit an an early 3, Carrawell got an old-fashioned three-point play and it was 8-0.
This would be Duke’s biggest lead.
Nobody expected it to last and it didn’t. Duke missed eight straight from the field and Carolina took their first lead at 24-21. Capel ended the drought with a steal and dunk and Duke finished the half on a 12-7 run that made it 33-31 Duke, at intermission.
The second half can be summed up in two words: Trajan Langdon. Every time Duke needed a big play, Langdon gave them a big play.
Okay, that’s an exaggeration. Capel, McLeod, Wojciechowski, even the bench came up big when needed. But this was the game Langdon went from “isn’t he the guy from Alaska” to the Alaskan Assassin.
Remember Langdon averaged 11 points per game in 1995 for an 18-loss team and missed the 1996 season with an injury. He scored 25 for Duke in that overtime loss to Clemson early in the 1997 season. But he also had 8 points in the Michigan loss, 10 points in the Wake Forest loss, 7 in the Maryland loss.
Carolina scored the first seven points of the second half to take a 38-33 lead. Duke regained the lead on an 8-2 run that included two Langdon bombs. Duke was down 48-43, when Langdon hit a pair from the line. Wojciechowski. took a seat with four fouls and Duke down 50-45. Langdon hit a 3. It was 54-50 Carolina when Langdon hit another 3. A Langdon foul shot tied the game at 54 but a lane violation waved off the second attempt.
By that point Langdon had scored 15 of Duke’s 21 points after the Devils fell behind 38-33.
A Capel steal and layup put Duke up 56-54 and a McLeod 3 tied it at 63-63.
Duke also got some key contributions from the bench. Ricky Price was in the midst of a shooting slump that dropped him from star to role player. He only scored two points in this game. But those points came on an offensive rebound with Duke down 54-48 and Carolina threatening to pull away.
And then there was Newton. He came off the bench but played 28 minutes, twice as many as Carrawell. A casual glance at the stat sheet suggests they weren’t very productive minutes; Newton had three points and three rebounds. But he used his size effectively inside, banging against Zwikker, and made a series of huge plays down the stretch.
The first came at that crucial 54-48 juncture, when Newton stole an inbounds pass, giving Duke a possession that ended with the Price putback.
The second came with Duke down 54-53. Newton drew a charge on Jamison, Jamison’s fourth foul. Jamison didn’t sit out long but he had to careful for the rest of the game.
As did Wojciechowski who came back in with 8:40 left and played the rest of the game.
A Capel layup gave Duke the lead for good at 67-66. Okulaja tried a 3 from the top of the circle but Newton blocked the shot, grabbed the ball out of the air and threw a strike to a streaking Capel for another layup; 69-66.
Jamison scored for the Heels but Capel found Newton inside. Newton scored, drew a foul and hit the foul shot. Those were his only points of the game but they gave Duke its first two-possession lead since the opening minutes.
Cota cut the Carolina deficit to two when Langdon delivered the dagger. Duke missed but got a held ball on the rebound; possession arrow, Duke. Duke burned some clock, Langdon came off a screen and buried the jumper with just under a minute remaining.
Capel and Wojciechowski got steals on Carolina’s next two possessions, Duke made three of four from the line and McLeod punctuated Duke’s 80-73 win with a rim-rattling dunk at the buzzer.
“We just said enough is enough,” Langdon said “and we need to come out and get a win tonight. I think we did a great job putting everything on the floor and getting the win.”
“We just wanted to be tough,” Capel added. “We wanted to make plays at the end. . . . We wanted to outfight them tonight.”
Krzyzewski cited Duke’s “poise down the end to get good shots, hit free throws, make good decisions” as the key to Duke’s win.
Langdon scored 20 of his game-high 28 points in the second half. Capel added 19 points and five assists, McLeod 14 points and those 11 rebounds. Wojciechowski had five steals.
Six Tar Heels scored in double figures but no one more than Zwikker’s 14. Duke held Jamison to eight field-goal attempts; he made five. And he didn’t go to the line at all.