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March 11, 2006

Duke survives against Wake Forest

Box score

GREENSBORO, N.C. - Point guard Greg Paulus scored almost at will, and Josh McRoberts had enough blocks, dunks and nifty passes to make this his own personal highlight reel.

With J.J. Redick hobbled by a bruised knee and Shelden Williams struggling with foul trouble, Duke s two freshmen let everyone know the program is in good hands for years to come.

"It was different the first couple of possessions not having the two of them," Paulus said. "Most of the time when we practice, we try to get everybody equal opportunity in case a situation like this arises."

It certainly paid off.

Paulus had a career-high 18 points, McRoberts added 13 and the third-ranked Blue Devils advanced to the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament final for the ninth straight year with a 78-66 victory over Wake Forest on Saturday.

Both of the first-year players reached double figures in the same game for the second time this season.

"To have two freshmen step up like that was big," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "We're very excited about the win and the manner in which we accomplished it, because we had to play very well in order to win."

Redick, the ACC's iron man who averages more than 37 minutes of playing time, left for about 4 minutes in the first half after he banged knees with Trent Strickland while trying to draw a charge. He went to the locker room before returning with a black knee brace, but limped his way to 20 points on 6-of-17 from the floor.

"Normally, when that type of thing happens, it's painful at first, you kind of hobble off and then it goes away," Redick said. "But I just got hit in a really weird spot, right on the inside of my knee. It didn't bother me at all once I got back out on the floor."

He was healthy enough to drive by defender Michael Drum for a three-point play with 1:35 remaining to give Duke (29-3) a 77-63 lead. Wake Forest finally was done at that point.

Eric Williams had 23 points and 12 rebounds for the Demon Deacons (17-16), the first No. 12 seed in the 52-year history of the tournament thanks to expansion. They still became the first last-place team to win two games in the event since Virginia in 1977 and solidified their hold on an NIT bid.

Justin Gray added 15 points and six assists for Wake Forest.

"Hopefully, we can be able to play in the NIT," Gray said. "Everybody in this locker room wants to compete in that."

The Blue Devils have bigger hopes, including a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and a return trip to the Greensboro Coliseum for the first two rounds. They snapped a two-game losing streak with an 80-76 victory over Miami a day earlier in the quarterfinals, and move on to play the winner of the North Carolina-Boston College matchup.

To get there, they had to withstand another spirited effort from Wake Forest. An 8-0 run in the first half that coincided with Redick's return gave Duke a 10-point lead, and coach Mike Krzyzewski punctuated the moment by turning to the fans behind the bench and imploring them to cheer.

The move might have backfired. The Deacons suddenly were the inspired team, with Gray leading the charge back into the game. He did a great Redick impersonation with 3-pointers on three consecutive possessions, the final one coming after Chris Ellis leveled Sean Dockery with a screen near midcourt.

"We realized at the point, if we didn't make a run, Duke was going to come out and punch us in the mouth," Gray said. "That's what it's all about, competing."

When Drum converted a steal into a breakaway layup, the game suddenly was tied 33-all. Redick made 1-of-2 at the line on the other end to put the Blue Devils back in front before Ellis swished a 3 from the corner to give Wake Forest its first lead since 2-0.

Duke then ran the shot clock down and allowed Gray to mockingly lead his teammates in slapping the floor, a trademark of Coach K's defense. It worked, too, as Williams blocked a drive by Redick right before the end of the half.

Gray walked off the court with his hand held to his ear, basking in the cheers from the sellout crowd full.

"It's my last time, I'm trying to have fun," he said. "I thought if I showed some energy and did something that we'd never done before, I'd show my teammates it's just a game. You've got to have smiles."

The good times didn't last. Redick's 3-pointer soon after halftime gave the Blue Devils the lead for good, and McRoberts figured prominently in the decisive spurt down the stretch. He blocked a shot by Drum, slammed home a miss from Redick, then added a steal to complete a fantastic couple of minutes.

When he used an assist from Paulus for another dunk, the lead was 69-55.

Paulus made all but one of his nine free throws and added five assists, while McRoberts had eight rebounds, two assists, a block and a steal. No wonder Duke is headed to the final again, even without the usual effort from Redick and Shelden Williams.

"It's not like those other guys are plumbers - not that I've got anything against plumbers," Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser said. "They were some of the most coveted high school players in the country. Those other guys are really good, too."

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