PHILADELPHIA -- It has been a long year, waiting, watching, working. A year ago, as Michigan State won the national title by outrunning Florida, the Duke basketball players vowed that this season would end differently.
It would end with them in their rightful place at the Final Four, where their coach is at his best.
Saturday night in a frenetic game against a gritty Southern California squad making its first appearance in a regional final, top-seeded Duke made good on its vow. After a 79-69 win at the First Union Center, the Blue Devils are going to Minneapolis, site of their last national championship, won in 1992.
As the final buzzer sounded, Shane Battier pumped his fist and Chris Duhon thrust his arms skyward.
The players pulled on gray T-shirts, with a bracket and a "D" in the center, and white hats and visors. Battier and Jason Williams joined Mike Krzyzewski for a CBS interview, then took turns snipping the net.
"I'm so happy for our guys," Coach K said, adding that Southern Cal "scared the hell out of me."
As the Duke band played, Williams cut a piece of net, then held up four fingers, then one. The final one. That is what they want.
Battier went next. He cut his piece, then held up two fingers, signifying his second Final Four trip and the two games they need to be the one.
"I held up one finger because that's my dream, to be No. 1 in the country when the year comes to an end," said Williams, voted the East Regional's Most Outstanding Player after scoring a game-high 28 points.
"We're happy to be in the Final Four, but we're expecting and looking forward to playing in two more games," said Battier, who finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds in 40 minutes.
"This is why I came back. ... Now that we're at the dance, it's time to boogie."
This Final Four will be Krzyzewski's ninth since 1986, and first since losing in the 1999 final to Connecticut.
Shane Battier was a sophomore on that team, which was loaded with talent, and afterward decimated by early entries into the NBA draft.
Battier stuck it out. He could have left last year, after collecting his second consecutive Defensive Player of the Year award. But he wanted this. He wants a national title.
It is funny how things work out. One of the defining moments of Duke's season came on Jan. 26, when the Blue Devils turned a 90-80 deficit in the final minute at Maryland into a stunning, stirring 98-96 overtime win. Williams scored eight points in a 14-second span, demoralizing the Terrapins en route to Duke's 19th victory of the season.
Now, Duke will play Maryland in the Final Four. The Terps, seeded third in the West, beat top-seeded Stanford, 87-73, yesterday in Anaheim, Calif.
Saturday will be Duke and Maryland's fourth meeting of the season, with the Blue Devils leading the series 2-1.
But as the final buzzer sounded, giving Duke it's 32d win in 36 games, the players were not thinking about the historical significance of their next game -- that ACC teams have met only once in the Final Four, Virginia and North Carolina in 1981 in Philadelphia.
On Saturday, familiar foes will meet in unfamiliar territory.
Duke's regional final appeared easier than Maryland's. As they had all tournament, the Trojans started quickly, with Jeff Trepagnier bombing a three-pointer on their first possession.
USC ran ahead, 12-9, when Sam Clancy scored inside, but Battier answered with a baseline jumper, Williams a steal and layup, then a three-pointer, then a dunk for an 18-12 lead the Blue Devils never relinquished.
Williams was sensational in the first half, slashing to the basket and abusing the Trojans' ever-changing defenses for 16 points in 19 minutes. Quietly, Battier made 6 of 8 field goals and scored 17 points to lead Duke to a 43-38 halftime lead.
But the second half belonged to Duhon. After he missed a three-pointer with the Blue Devils clinging to an eight-point lead, Trojans assistant David Miller yelled down the bench: "He can't shoot. He can't shoot at all."
Yes he can. With 14:07 remaining, Duhon buried a three-pointer from the top of the key to push Duke's lead to 54-45.
Nearly 10 minutes later, he made another three, from the right wing, for a 70-59 lead. A few minutes later, Duhon hit another for a 75-64 lead.
He finished with 13 points, and afterward wore one of the First Union Center nets around his neck.
"I was the McDonald's high school three-point shooting winner," Duhon said, adding that he "kind of figured" Southern Cal didn't think he could shoot.
"The guy I was guarding kept leaving me. It was like, 'I dare you to shoot.'
Once I hit that first one down, a lot of confidence flowed through my blood, and my teammates kept kicking it to me."
Krzyzewski called Duhon's three-pointers "huge, huge shots."
"All of a sudden, we kicked it out to him, and he knocked them down," Krzyzewski added.
"They were huge, tremendous shots."
Four Trojans scored in double figures, led by Sam Clancy's 19 points in 39 minutes.
He joined teammates David Bluthenthal and Brian Scalabrine on the all-regional team, along with Battier and Williams.
"We played one of the best teams tonight we've played all year," Southern Cal coach Henry Bibby said. It was high praise, since the Trojans played Stanford, UCLA, Mississippi and Arizona this season.
"I don't know if there's anybody that can beat Duke out there," Bibby said.