MINNEAPOLIS - The prime-time players showed up once again for Duke, Maryland's leading scorers fell silent in the second half, and the Terps watched their parade of big men disappear in a barrage of fouls.
That equation combined to halt a magical run last night by the Terps, whose first trip to the Final Four in school history ended in disappointment with a 95-84 loss to Duke, in a contest that basically was a tale of two distinct halves.
Duke, which will face Arizona in tomorrow night's championship game, will go for its third national title, all under coach Mike Krzyzewski. Maryland, which was trying to reach its first national title game ever, lost for only the second time in its past 12 games, with both losses coming against the Blue Devils.
Duke, which spotted the Terps a 22-point first-half lead before beating Maryland for the third time in four games this year, won the way it usually does - with sophomore point guard Jason Williams and senior forward Shane Battier taking control of the contest.
Battier was spectacular all night, scoring a game-high 25 points, grabbing eight rebounds and blocking a game-high four shots. Williams shook off a poor first half by scoring 19 of his 23 points after halftime. Williams teamed up with center Carlos Boozer to lead Duke on a game-ending 15-4 run that made the Blue Devils' night look deceptively easy.
Duke needed all of its weapons. It needed Boozer to play his best game since returning from a foot injury that knocked him out of action on Feb. 27 - during Duke's only loss to Maryland. He finished with 19 points and was superb down the stretch. It needed Nate James to lead a defensive effort to contain Maryland shooting guard Juan Dixon, who led the Terps with 19 points, but managed only three after the first half.
It needed Boozer and Battier to lead the way in stopping Maryland center Lonny Baxter, who scored 10 points and grabbed 10 rebounds and was a far cry from his dominant self in last week's West Regionals. Baxter, who did not benefit from some whistles that were questionable, fouled out with 2:48 left and Maryland trailing 84-79.
'This doesn't feel good, but we know what we have to do now at Maryland to get here, which we didn't know before," said Terps coach Gary Williams, who had never taken a team beyond the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16 in 22 previous seasons of coaching.
"Whenever nothing's been done like that before, it's always harder to get there. But once you're there, you can at least say to the next team that all things are possible at Maryland."
As had happened in the previous three meetings between Maryland and the Blue Devils, the team that trailed at halftime prevailed last night.
The first half was nearly all Maryland, which jumped Duke early by taking a 12-4 lead, then sprinted out to a 22-point lead at 39-17 with 6:50 left in the half. Duke dug down and made its first major run after that, cutting the Terps' advantage to 46-38 in the final minute of the half, before Dixon made a three-pointer just before the halftime horn that put the Terps in front 49-38 at the break.
The breathing room would be short-lived.
"We were up by 22? Twenty-two? Get out of here," said Dixon, who put his head in his hands while sitting at his locker in the aftermath. "That hurts. That hurts bad. We came so far this year, and to have a lead like that and not be able to get it done, that hurts."
"Nobody is better than 22 [points] on Duke. We played great to get to that 22-point lead," Gary Williams said. "I knew they would make a run. I thought we had enough to sustain it. We had a chance to put the ball in the basket a couple of times and we didn't do it.
"And when it gets close like that, you have to take advantage of opportunities, and we didn't do that. With about three minutes left, we had a really good opportunity to win that game. It didn't happen. But this year was special for us," he said of his 25-11 Terps.
The top-ranked Blue Devils (34-4) showed their mettle by opening the second half with a 12-5 run. Seven of those points came from Battier, who made a three-pointer and four free throws during the run. His last two free throws cut the Terps' lead to 54-50 with 17:46 left.
Maryland was able to extend its lead to 69-62 with 10:38 to go, but Battier made a pair of threes in succession to pull the Blue Devils to 69-68 with 8:07 left, and from there, the game became a dogfight.
The Terps barely clung to the lead, before Williams, silent for the first half, buried a three-pointer to give Duke its first lead of the night at 73-72 with 6:50 left. The lead changed hands five times after that, but after James made a putback to give the Blue Devils a 80-79 advantage, Battier made a pair of free throws to make it 82-79.
With that, the Blue Devils were off on their game-ending run and off to another championship game.
Maryland suffered all night with foul trouble, especially up front. Morris picked up three fouls in the first half (the third in the final minute), drew his fourth in the opening seconds of the second half, then sat for 14 minutes before giving Maryland a late spark and finishing with 10 points and eight rebounds.
Tahj Holden, a key reserve, also finished with four fouls and only four points. He picked up back-to-back fouls late in the first half, including a charging call to Battier's benefit that drew loud groans from the Terps. Baxter, who was called for holding Boozer in the post on the foul-out play, insisted he barely touched Boozer, who played most of the stretch with four fouls.
"It's hard to believe sometimes. All you ever want as an athlete is to be given a chance and to play on a level playing field," said Maryland senior Mike Mardesich, who was the only post player to avoid foul problems. He finished with six points and five rebounds in 20 minutes.
"I don't want to make excuses. Duke won the game, and they played great. But sometimes the consistency of what goes on in college basketball as far as not being on a level playing field really gets to you. It sours your perspective on college athletics."
Said backup guard Drew Nicholas, who contributed seven points: "You can't have a team like Duke on the ropes any more than we had them. We knew they were going to make a push. Great basketball teams don't just lie down and let you have them. Give them credit."