PONTIAC, Mich. -- Duke has been down this road before. Five years ago it led to Dallas. Three years ago to Kansas City. Two years ago to Seattle. Last year to Denver. All turned out to be dead ends for the Blue Devils.
Now it's Indianapolis. Duke made it four straight Final Fours -- the first team since UCLA in 1973, and, along with Cincinnati, which appeared in five straight, the only ones besides the Bruins to do so -- by beating St. John's, 78-61, yesterday in the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament Midwest Regional final at the Silverdome.
The sixth-ranked Blue Devils (30-7) will meet top-ranked and unbeaten Nevada-Las Vegas (34-0) Saturday at the Hoosier Dome, setting up a rematch of last year's championship game nightmare for Duke. The Runnin' Rebels won by 30 points, the largest margin of victory in an NCAA final.
"We're going to try to do something against Vegas. Hopefully it will be closer than 30 points," said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who will be making his fifth trip to the Final Four since 1986. "Hopefully, we'll give them a closer game."
The Blue Devils did to the Redmen what UNLV did to them in last year's championship game. After losing starting center Robert Werdann and starting point guard Jason Buchanan less than eight minutes into the game, St. John's fell behind by as many as 17 points late in the first half and never recovered.
Werdann, who played solidly in Friday's upset of top-seeded Ohio State, reinjured a calf muscle in his right leg with 12 minutes, 23 seconds remaining in the first half. The 6-foot-11 junior came back briefly and then sat out the entire second half. Bobby Hurley harassed Buchanan into three quick fouls, the third 17 seconds after Werdann got hurt.
Asked what a difference having Werdann might have made, St. John's coach Lou Carnesecca said: "It is pure conjecture. You have to play with what you have."
What the fourth-seeded Redmen had wasn't enough, either in terms of talent or depth. Duke shut down Malik Sealy, St. John's leading scorer, for much of the first half. Sealy, who was guarded mostly by Thomas Hill, didn't score a basket until there was 9:50 left in the half and his team already down, 22-13. Duke's lead would grow to 37-20.
Though the Redmen cut the deficit to 13 points by halftime, the second-seeded Blue Devils pushed it to 22 within the first three minutes of the second half. A 10-1 run by St. John's, with all of its points coming from Sealy, got it down to 13 again, but no closer. Duke would lead by as many as 22.
"He [Hill] did an excellent job on defense," said Sealy, who finished eight of 19 from the field for 19 points. "Toward the end of the first half, I was able to get my shots, but he bumped me a lot and stuck with me."
Said Hill: "The key to playing him was to stay in front of him. He moves really well without the ball and is dangerous in the open court. You don't want to let him have easy baseline jumpers."
With Buchanan on the bench and Werdann in the dressing room, the Blue Devils forced 16 first-half turnovers, 26 for the game. They set a regional record with 17 steals. Mostly, Hurley set the tone for the game at both ends.
The sophomore point guard finished with 20 points on six of 10 from the field, four of seven on three-point shots. Hurley also had a team-high seven rebounds, four assists and four steals. Junior center Christian Laettner added 19 points.
"They seemed to always be in the passing lanes," said Carnesecca. "They took away our candy."
While the defeat denied Carnesecca his second trip to the Final Four and, at 66, a chance to become the second-oldest coach in the NCAA semifinals, the victory gave Krzyzewski and his team an opportunity to erase the memories of last year's 103-73 disaster.
Though at one point Krzyzewski stepped in when Laettner was asked about UNLV All-America Larry Johnson, saying "He doesn't know what he hasn't been taught," most of the Duke players seem to be looking forward to the rematch. Even Hurley, whose celebrated stomach virus didn't help Duke last year, wasn't backing off from the challenge.
"I'm playing with a lot more confidence the last two games," said Hurley, who was named the regional's Most Valuable Player. "I need to continue to do that. I'll think I'll be ready this time. I think our whole team will be."
Krzyzewski said that he thought his team would be better equipped to face UNLV because its ball-handling and defense are better than they were a year ago. Carnesecca agreed, but only to a point.
"I think they're better than last year," said Carnesecca. "But UNLV, that's another story."