CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- As a freshman and sophomore, Grant Hill was the unsung hero on Duke's back-to-back national championship teams. Now he is a senior and no longer unsung.
But he is still the hero.
After leading the young Blue Devils to a regular-season Atlantic Coast Conference title and the school's seventh Final Four in the past nine years, the 6-foot-8 All-American has led Duke to the brink of another NCAA championship.
Hill scored 25 points, 14 in the second half, as the Blue Devils overcame a 13-point deficit with 18 minutes to go to beat Florida, 70-65, in the second national semifinal game last night at the Charlotte Coliseum.
Duke (28-5), looking for its third national championship in Hill's four years, will meet Arkansas, a 91-82 winner over Arizona in the first semifinal, here tomorrow night. The loss by the upstart Gators (29-8) prevented an all-Southeastern Conference final and put an ACC team in the final for the fifth straight year.
"We seemed kind of frazzled," said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who won for the fifth time in seven NCAA semifinals and led the Blue Devils to their fourth final in the past five years. "I thought we were knocked back by their quickness and their defense. But the last 15 minutes were great. . . . Grant was the difference in the game tonight."
The other Hill, Florida's Dametri Hill, was the difference for the first 30 minutes. But after scoring 10 of his team-high 16 and leading the Gators to a 39-32 halftime lead, then helping Florida take a 45-32 lead early in the second half, Duke's defense shut down the 6-foot-7, 286-pound forward.
After a stirring comeback that pulled them within one on three occasions, the Blue Devils seemed to stall. But after failing to take the lead on missed jumpers by Hill and Cherokee Parks, the Blue Devils went ahead, 61-60, on a clear-out short jumper in the lane by Hill with 4:42 to go.
The Gators went ahead 63-62 on a three-point shot by Craig Brown with 2:52 to go, but a three-point shot by freshman guard Jeff Capel put Duke ahead for good. After Grant Hill rebounded a miss by Dametri Hill and was fouled, one of two free throws made it 66-63. A short jumper by DeClercq cut Duke's lead back to one.
"I thought we had a good chance," said Brown, who was held by Hill to eight points on 3-for-9 shooting. "But Duke made some big defensive stops down the stretch."
The first came when senior reserve Marty Clark stripped Florida's other guard, Dan Cross, of the ball as he drove the lane. Parks (11 points, 11 rebounds) scored on a layup at the other end for a 68-65 lead. Cross bowled over senior forward Tony Lang with 11 seconds left, then scored the final basket before the Gators could foul.
While Grant Hill made most of the big plays for the Blue Devils, Clark and Lang came up with their share, especially in the last minute. Lang scored 12, eight in the second half. Clark finished with eight points, three rebounds, three assists and four steals in 24 minutes.
"All year long, we've gone on to the next play," said Krzyzewski, whose team overcame a horrendous stretch in the first half when it was outscored 14-3 in the last eight minutes and shot nine of 25 from the field. "That really characterized our team this tonight. This was a seniors game for us."
And it was another sensational performance by Hill. After getting out to a fast start with 11 points in less than 12 minutes, the ACC's Player of the Year didn't score for the next 11 while committing several of his game-high seven turnovers.
But he continued to shut down Brown, Florida's leading scorer, and then hit a three-point shot with 17:57 to go to start Duke's comeback. By the time he was finished, and Florida's dream season was, too, Hill had made eight of 13 shots, including three of four on threes. He also had six rebounds, five assists and two blocks.
"I think in the first half, I was trying to look to penetrate," said Hill. "They were making me a little frustrated. They were scoring off my turnovers. But in the second half, I calmed down. I tried to use my height to shoot over them."
While Hill kept hitting, the Gators kept missing. Especially their guards, Brown and Cross, who combined for six of 23 overall, including three of 14 in the second half. While DeClercq (14 points, seven rebounds) and Dametri Hill kept them in the game until the final minute, Duke's Final Four experience won out.
"He [Hill] did an exceptional job on both ends," said Brown. "Especially the defensive end, in denying me the basketball on the perimeter. And his teammates did a good job when he wasn't guarding me. He's a very good player and he showed that tonight."
Said Florida coach Lon Kruger: "He's a great player who makes each of his teammates a little better. They made the smart plays at the end to win. I think being here before helped them at the end."
Whether it will help Duke tomorrow night is another story. In what has brought comparisons, even among their coaches, to the Blue Devils' 1990 final matchup with Nevada-Las Vegas, Duke will play a team that is bigger, stronger and deeper. The Runnin' Rebels won that game by an NCAA-record 30.
"They're going to have their hands full," said Cross, recalling Florida's two SEC losses to the Razorbacks.
Said Krzyzewski: "They're a great team. They come at you a lot of different ways. They've been the best team in the country for most of the year. But the best team doesn't always win the national championship."
Arkansas has a lot of players. But the Razorbacks don't have Grant Hill. Ever since he came to Duke four years ago, that has often been the difference. It was again last night.