Duke’s longest losing streak to North Carolina since the 1970s was over. But at 5-3 in the ACC, Duke still had work to do. Wake Forest was 18-1 overall, 8-1 in the ACC after a February 1 payback win over Maryland, the only team to put a blemish on their record.
Duke followed the Carolina win with a 70-61 win over Georgia Tech. Tech’s marvelous forward Matt Harpring led all scorers with 18 points and Ed Elisma (9 points, 9 rebounds) outplayed Newton (6 points, 6 rebounds). But Tech didn’t have enough firepower to pull off the upset in Cameron. Langdon (17 points), McLeod (17) and Price (16) led the way for Duke.
Newton regained his starting spot for the Tech game and played 24 minutes. But he wasn’t practicing well and wasn’t playing well. Except for Senior Day, he never again started for Duke.
Which might not have been the best way to into Winston-Salem to face Duncan and the Deacs. Duke was 6-3 in the ACC, Wake Forest 8-1. Duke couldn’t afford to fall any further behind Wake Forest if they had any realistic chance to win the conference.
But this game was in Winston-Salem and Tim Duncan was the best player in the country.
There was another sidebar. Wake was ranked second nationally and top-ranked Kansas had lost the previous day. Wins over Duke and Missouri later in the week and Wake Forest would be ranked number one for the first time in school history.
But Dave Odom had not surrounded Duncan with the kind of talent necessary to maximize his abilities. Tony Rutland was Wake’s only other double-figure scorer and he was followed by Jerry Braswell and 6-10 Ricky Peral. None of these players ever played a second in the NBA. Odom sometimes paired Duncan with 7-1 freshman Loren Woods—Carrawell’s prep teammate—and Woods would achieve some level of success after transferring to Arizona.
Krzyzewski decided the key to beating Wake was to smother Duncan and dare someone else to beat him.
It was crucial to keep Duncan off the glass. He led the NCAA with 14.7 rebounds per game that year and did much of his damage on second-chance opportunities.
Wake scored the first five points but Duke scored the next eight. Duke continued to run an efficient offense and ended the first half up 36-30 after leading by as many as nine. Duke’s depth was a factor. The Blue Devils used 11 players, with come combination of Carrawell, McLeod, lanky 6-8 freshman Mike Chappell, Domzalski and Newton (six minutes) trying to wear down Wake’s size.
Duke got its biggest lead at 52-41, after a Capel steal and layup with just over 13 minutes remaining. It was 54-43 when Wake made its run. Duke missed some 3s early in the possession and Wake got the ball to Duncan.
When Duncan got the ball, he was close to unstoppable; he hit 11 of 13 from the field. But he only had seven rebounds and he missed five of nine from the foul line. Duke made him work for his points.
Still, Wake closed the gap, caught up and then took a 62-60 lead on a Peral jumper, with four minutes left.
Duke made the plays it needed to make to regain control. Wake gambled that Wojciechowski wasn’t going to hurt them with his shooting. They lost the gamble. Wojciechowski hit a midrange jumper to tie the game at 62.
“Wojo hit a ballsy shot,” Duncan acknowledged. “We didn’t expect him to take that shot and we didn’t expect him to make it.”
Duke got a stop and McLeod buried a 3. Wake scored but Capel answered with a leaner. With Duke up 67-64 Carrawell blocked a Rutland layup and Langdon made four straight foul shots.
The final was 73-68.
Carrawell’s late-game block was hailed as the game’s biggest play.
“I just got over a second late,” Carrawell said. “I just waited, came over and blocked it.”
“Their small lineup certainly bothered us,” Odom said. “I don’t know that we found an answer to it. They executed it perfectly. We never got control of the game defensively.”
Duke hit 46 percent from the field, which doesn’t sound all that impressive except that Duke was the first team to hit over 40 percent against the Deacons all season. Duke also forced 17 turnovers, while committing only nine. Capel (18 points), McLeod (16) and Langdon (10) led Duke in scoring.
Duncan’s 26 points led everyone.
Domzalski got eight minutes when McLeod got into foul trouble, his first playing time since December. But his knee continued to bother him and he continued to play sparingly.
“The main thing is to be in the race,” Wojciechowski noted “and that goes through Wake Forest right now. We weren’t really concerned about national rankings, we’re concerned about the ACC race and that was our main, motivating factor tonight.”
Duke used this as a springboard. ACC wins over NC State, Virginia, Florida State and Clemson followed. That 62-61 Virginia win was the infamous game in which Duke was allowed to inbounds the ball after a made Virginia foul shot despite the fact that Virginia had a player at the scorer’s table, ready to check in.
Clemson was still ranked eighth when Duke got an 84-77 payback win. Buckner scored 22 points for the Tigers but Langdon owned the Cameron court, with a 34-point explosion that included a nine for nine outing at the foul line and making half of his six 3-pointers.
Capel added 12 points, Price 11.
While this was going on Wake Forest, Maryland and Clemson were cannibalizing each other. In a delicious irony, the late-surging Tar Heels helped Duke by defeating Wake Forest, Maryland and Clemson.
Duke went out west and fell short at UCLA, 73-69, despite 17 points from Californian Ricky Price.
Senior Day was Thursday, February 27, against Maryland. The Terps had dropped to 16th in the AP poll but still had an outside chance at the ACC title.
Duke started seniors Capel, Newton and Wallace, along with Langdon and Wojciechowski. Duke broke open a close game in the middle of the second half and pulled away for an 81-69 win. Capel went out in style with 18 points, cheers and adulation replacing the disgruntlement of a few months earlier.
Florida State upset Wake Forest two days later and Duke was the ACC regular-season champion.
Going small had paid big dividends. But was it sustainable?
The answer was no. Every Duke player was routinely going against bigger and stronger players almost every minute they were on the floor and it eventually caught up with them. Duke traveled to Chapel Hill to end the regular season and this time they were bludgeoned on the boards. North Carolina out-rebounded Duke 49-18. Jamison had 33 points and 11 rebounds. Zwikker added 10 rebounds.
No Duke player had more than three rebounds. McLeod had two in 21 minutes. Krzyzewski went to Newton to stop the carnage but he only grabbed three rebounds in 25 minutes.
Amazingly, Duke still had a chance to win. The Blue Devils launched 34 3-pointers and hit half of them. Wojciechowski was an astonishing six for seven, Capel four for seven. But every time Duke needed a stop, Carolina played volleyball under their basket until they scored.
The final was 91-85.
Duke ended the ACC at 12-4. Wake Forest and North Carolina were 11-5. Clemson and Maryland were 9-7. North Carolina finished the regular season winning its last eight conference games, undefeated after falling in Cameron.
Duke lost to NC State 66-60 in its ACC Tournament opener. Duke hit 37 percent from the field.
Capel led Duke with 17 points.
Duke was seeded second in the Southeast Regional and opened in Charlotte. Capel’s 25 points staved off a spirited upset bid by Murray State in the first round; Duke won 72-69.
But Duke’s undersized front line had no chance against Providence’s bigs in the second round. Power forward Derrick Brown had 33 points and 10 rebounds, while center Austin Croshere had 21 points and 10 rebounds. Capel had 26 points for Duke, Langdon 15, McLeod 15. But McLeod only had two rebounds as Duke was out-rebounded 43-24.
Domzalski played two minutes. Newton did not get off the bench.
Duke ended its season at 24-9.
Capel was Duke’s leading scorer in four of Duke’s final five games and averaged 20.2 points per game over than span, playing the best basketball of his career at the end of his college playing career.
Losing three of its last four was a disappointing end to a season that saw Duke jump as high as sixth in the AP poll. But that ACC regular-season title was a tangible accomplishment. Five ACC teams were ranked in the top 10 that season and Duke finished ahead of the other four. They finished ahead of Duncan and Wake Forest, ahead of Jamison, Carter and North Carolina, ahead of Booth and Maryland, ahead of Buckner and Clemson. Duke finished the season ranked eighth after finishing the previous two unranked. Langdon was named first-team All-ACC, the first Duke player so honored since Grant Hill in 1994. Duke had six wins over nationally-ranked teams.
Duke did this despite getting only 112 minutes from Domzalski and 144 from James, despite Price’s scoring average dropping almost five points per game from 1996, despite getting 21 total points from Newton over their final 11 games, despite being out-rebounded by an average of three rebounds per game over the season.
Certainly, Krzyzewski did a great a great coaching job under trying circumstances and Capel’s late-season resurgence can hardly be overstated. But it was Langdon, Wojciechowski, McLeod and Carrawell who served as a bridge from the mediocrity of 1995 and 1996 to 32 wins in 1998, 37 in 1999 and a national title in 2001.
Simply, put, 1997 was the year Duke got back in the business of winning championships.