The 2001 Duke basketball team was on a mission–to claim the third national title for head coach Mike Krzyzewski and give him, and their program, a unique place in college basketball history.
Duke had the talent to do it–with Shane Battier, Jason Williams, Carlos Boozer and Mike Dunleavy, the Blue Devils had four future NBA players. Three are still playing in 2013, and only a career-ending knee injury prevented Williams–perhaps the best of them all–from doing the same.
The Dookies also had the hunger. The previous three years had seen them in good position to grab title #3, but come up short. They lost a regional final in 1998 to Kentucky after blowing a 17-point second-half lead. Duke lost the 1999 NCAA final to UConn as a 9 1/2 point favorite. In 2000, they were a #1 seed but were upset in the Sweet 16.
Coach K’s team opened the season ranked #2 behind the Arizona Wildcats. The Blue Devils spent four weeks atop the polls in the non-conference part of the schedule, never drifted out of the top four and were back at #1 by the team the 2001 NCAA Tournament began.
The consistent high rankings belie some of the real adversity this team faced. Duke lost a key home game to Maryland on Senior Night and also lost Boozer to an injury. The loss in the game threatened their ACC title hopes and the loss in the lineup hurt them in the national title push.
Duke was able to rally with a clutch 95-81 road win over North Carolina in the final regular season game and tied the Tar Heels for the conference championship. Duke then won the league tournament decisively, hammering UNC in the final by a 79-53 count.
It was enough to get the Blue Devils a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and a familiar path to the brass ring. They would open in Greensboro, move on to the regionals in Philadelphia and the Final Four would be in Minneapolis–the exact same path the team trod on its way to the 1992 national championship.
Duke rolled over Monmouth to open the tournament and then faced a good Missouri team in the second round. The Tigers were coached by former Duke point guard Quin Snyder, and his showdown with Krzyzewski was the subject of a lot of media hype. It was a good game, but the Blue Devils turned back the upset bid 94-81.
Philadelphia was not only the site of Duke’s victory in the 1992 East regionals, but that of arguably the greatest game in college basketball history, the 104-103 overtime win over Kentucky in the final. The NCAA selection committee coincidentally put the Wildcats as the #2 seed in the East for this year’s bracket and set up a potential rematch.
It also set up Duke having to go through two of the most storied programs in history, since UCLA was the Sweet 16 opponent. Fortunately, Boozer also made it back for this game, and both Williams and Battier went off for a combined 58 points. Duke won easily 76-63.
Instead of an epic rematch though, Duke had to deal with a Pac-10 path. USC upset Kentucky in the other regional semi, and the sixth-seeded Trojans were the opponent in the final. Williams and Battier again dominated, combining for 48 points and 17 rebounds. Williams was named the region’s Outstanding Player in the 79-69 win.
Now it was on to the Final Four and a grudge match against Maryland. The Terps had not only spoiled Senior Night, but they played Duke to the wire in the ACC Tournament. Now, on college basketball’s biggest stage, Maryland came out flying to a 22-point lead in the first half.
One of the great sustained turnarounds in NCAA Tournament lore would follow. Duke cut the lead to 11 by halftime and in winning the second half 57-35, ended up completing a 33-point turnaround. The final was 95-84, with Battier and Williams again combining for 48 points.
Monday night in Minneapolis brought the 2001 college basketball season full circle. Arizona and Duke had been 1-2 to start the year, and that was the national championship matchup. Battier was solid, at 18 points/11 rebounds, but Williams had a rough shooting night, going 2-for-11 from three-point range.
Normally this might have done the Dookies in, but Dunleavy stepped up with his best game of the tournament, leading Duke with 21 points. The Blue Devils held a small, but persistent lead throughout the second half and finally sealed a 92-82 in.
The Duke Trifecta was now complete. Coach K joined his mentor Bob Knight in winning three national championships, and trailed only Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp (5) and UCLA’s John Wooden (10) on the all-time list.