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CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Last April was the spring of Mike Krzyzewski's discontent. His juggernaut team had just lost in the NCAA Tournament championship game, and three of his underclassmen had bolted for the NBA's millions. Duke, the know-it-alls said, was finished. And to add injury to insult, Krzyzewski was recovering from hip-replacement surgery.
He felt helpless. Then one day, his team's three veterans Chris Carrawell, Shane Battier and Nate James drove out to Krzyzewski's house and demanded an audience.
``With all the stuff that was happening and speculation, they just came out and said, `Coach, we just want to know how you're doing,' '' Krzyzewski said. ``And it made me cry because they cared. We talked for a long time that afternoon and we talked about next year. That was the start of this year's team.''
Those rumors regarding the Blue Devils' demise? Eleven months after those painful April showers, Duke defeated Maryland, 81-68, on Sunday afternoon in Charlotte Coliseum for its second straight ACC Tournament championship. Carving their place in history, the Blue Devils (27-4) became the first team since N.C. State 26 years ago to win both the regular-season and tournament crowns in back-to-back years.
Duke claimed the No. 1 seed in the NCAA East Regional for the second straight year and will open Friday against Southland Conference champion Lamar in WinstonSalem, N.C. And when the Associated Press poll is released today, the Blue Devils likely will become the first team since DePaul in 1980-81 to finish at the top in backto-back years.
Call it familiar territory.
``All the naysayers were saying Duke was dead, that we couldn't do it again this year,'' Battier said. ``But we all got together and decided to do whatever it takes to maintain Duke's excellence. You always have doubts you wouldn't be human if you didn't have doubts. But the most important thing is, we never let those doubts out.''
The Blue Devils have won 37 of their past 38 games against conference opponents. And in turning back Maryland, Duke got even with the one team who dared interfere with its run.
``So we're, what, 37-1?'' Carrawell said. ``Yeah, that's proud.''
Duke's veterans set the tone for the season, but it was a pair of rookies who made the difference Sunday. Jason Williams, handed the point guard spot when William Avery left after his sophomore year, capped a remarkable weekend with 23 points and six assists in 38 minutes. He flustered Terrapin Steve Blake, the league's second-best rookie point guard, by constantly beating him to the lane or by sticking four 3-pointers in seven attempts.
``Jason really made big plays for us,'' Krzyzewski said. ``His ability to get into the seams of their defense, breaking them down a little bit, really opened things up.''
Williams was named the tournament MVP, but equally important Sunday was the play of freshman center Carlos Boozer of Juneau, who was handed the starting center position when Elton Brand left after his sophomore year. All Boozer did was score 21 points on 8-of-14 shooting and limit Terrapins counterpart Lonny Baxter to 10 points on 4-of-15.
``We wanted to go into Carlos, and he responded in an amazing way,'' Krzyzewski said. ``It's kind of nice when your best game is in the championship game.''
Maryland (24-9), which was made the third seed in the Midwest Region, led for all of 48 seconds but kept hanging around until Duke pulled away in the final 8 minutes. After the Terps cut it to 56-52 with 8:50 left on Terence Morris' follow, Boozer answered 34 seconds later with a left-handed baby hook. Then, after Maryland's Juan Dixon was called for an offensive foul, Williams stuck a 3pointer from the left corner to make it 61-52 at 7:44.
Baxter's short jumper made it a seven-point game, but Williams beat Blake to the lane again and scored as his shot was goaltended by Baxter. After two Dixon misses on the other end, Boozer's threepoint play put the Blue Devils safely ahead, 66-54 with 5:38 left.
``We missed some shots today that could have broken their momentum a little bit,'' Terps coach Gary Williams said. ``It's hard to stop a Duke basketball team with their offensive abilities. You need to stop them with your offense sometimes. As long as you get your scores, you're kind of interrupting what they're doing.''
And for Duke, it all goes back to last April.
``It really bonded all of us,'' James said of the visit. ``That's why we have such a special relationship with Coach. We told Coach that through thick and thin, we'd be there for him.''
No. 5 Michigan State 76, No. 25 Illinois 61
Michigan State (26-7) sealed its second straight No. 1 seed by routing Illinois.
The key play might have been Andre Hutson's elbow that hit Cory Bradford in the nose during a scramble under the basket with 7 minutes left in the first half. The Illini (21-9) never recovered.
The Spartans will play in the Midwest, which means possibly in the regional semifinals and finals at Auburn Hills, Mich. Illinois is a No. 4 in the East.
No. 7 Iowa State 70, No. 15 Oklahoma 58
Iowa State (29-4) capped its turnaround season in which it improved by 14 victories and won its first regular-season conference championship in 55 years. Marcus Fizer had 22 points for the Cyclones, who were seeded second in the Midwest.
The Sooners (26-6) wound up as the No. 3 seed in the West.
Arkansas 75, Auburn 67
Sophomore Brandon Dean scored 22 points - a career high for the second game in a row - and the Razorbacks somehow mustered the strength to win for the fourth time in four days, beating Auburn 75-67 Sunday to claim the tournament title and the SEC's automatic bid.