EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Asked on the eve of the East Regional semifinal whether there was more pressure coaching a team that was heavily favored, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski answered without hesitation:
"I'd rather have my team getting ready for Southwest Missouri State than Steve Alford [getting ready for Duke]," Krzyzewski said. "I'm happy with the position that I'm in."
The reason the Duke coach was happy was on display last night as center Elton Brand dominated the inside, and Trajan Langdon put on a shooting exhibition as the top-seeded Blue Devils defeated No. 12 seed Southwest Missouri, 78-61, to advance to tomorrow's East Region final.
The expected blowout was slow in coming, however. A surprising Southwest Missouri team (22-11) that had dominated Wisconsin and Tennessee on the way to the Sweet 16 was down just 39-30 at halftime against Duke. The Blue Devils were up 59-20 at halftime against Florida A&M; and 53-23 against Tulsa in the first two rounds.
But Duke (35-1) was simply stronger and more athletic in extending its school-record winning streak to 30 games and its record at the Meadowlands to 14-1. Brand scored 14 points despite constant double teams, and also grabbed eight rebounds and blocked five shots.
When Brand was doubled, Duke did a good job rotating the ball to the open shooter, who was often Langdon.
In just his second game back after a 10-day absence for a sprained foot, Langdon scored 24 points and hit four of six three-pointers. He also grabbed a career-high eight rebounds.
"I was able to practice all week and it [the foot] feels real good and is responding well," Langdon said.
"Trajan's our leader," Krzyzewski said. "He's probably a little fresher now as a result of being out. He's in great condition."
Southwest Missouri promised that it would not be in awe of a Duke team that had won each of its first two games by 41 points. And that was the case for most of the first half as the Bears -- with four minutes left -- were within 32-27 after a jumper by Allen Phillips.
What was surprising was the Bears opting to run against Duke's pressure defense and getting some easy scores early. Krzyzewski made a tactical move in calling off the press, a move that Alford said was a big difference in the game.
"Once they took the press off, it got into more of a grind-it-out half-court game," said the former Indiana star. "And that was to their advantage."
Another difference was just the sheer physical difference between the teams.
Southwest Missouri center Danny Moore, the team's leading scorer who had 25 points in the second-round win over Tennessee, gave up nearly 30 pounds to Brand. And while Moore scored 15 points, he missed 10 of his 15 shots as he was bullied by Brand (who had nine points in the first half).
"He's just a big presence inside," said Moore. "He has great shot-blocking ability."
The Blue Devils put the game away by opening the second half with a 23-16 run, taking a 62-46 lead after a layup by Brand with 10 minutes left. From there Duke coasted to the win.
"I thought their offense was better than our defense in the first half and then we picked it up," Krzyzewski said. "Our defense was good in the second half and we were efficient offensively. Trajan was outstanding and SMS is a very good basketball team."
And though disappointed, it was a proud team as well.
"We wanted to give them our best shot and we did that," said Alford. "We just got beat by a better team."
A better team that put forth yet another workmanlike effort in pursuit of the school's first NCAA title since 1992. The more Duke plays, the more it appears the team will not be beat.
"Coach instilled the will to win in us, to play our hardest every time out," Brand said. "We don't look at the name of the team we're playing. As long as Duke's playing, we're out there to play our best."
In all honesty, the best of Duke was not on display last night, especially in the first half. And that should be scary to future opponents.
"They can beat you in so many different ways," Alford said. "They're one of the great teams in college basketball."
Pub Date: 3/20/99