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James' alert tip-in sets up Duke-North Carolina final

By BRIAN LANDMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001


ATLANTA -- Senior forward Nate James has spent his career being the "other" guy for the perennially talent-laden Duke Blue Devils. Mired in a bit of slump recently, he even has lost his starting job.

But in the biggest moment against the Maryland Terrapins in a classic Atlantic Coast Conference tournament semifinal Saturday afternoon, he was THE guy.

James tipped in a missed Jason Williams driving layup with 1.3 seconds left as Duke, which then had to survive a Juan Dixon near-miss from 30 feet, eked out a dramatic 84-82 win before 40,083 at the Georgia Dome.

"I don't worry about recognition," he said. "As long as I'm playing well and I'm on top of my game, that will come. I think I'm just as good as Shane (Battier) or Jason (Williams) or Carlos (Boozer) or Mike Dunleavy, by doing what I do."

The No. 2-seeded Blue Devils (28-4), ranked No. 3, meet top-seeded and No. 6-ranked North Carolina for the championship at 1 p.m. today. Not only will the Blue Devils be going for a third straight title, they will be battling their archrivals for the coveted top spot in the NCAA East Region in Greensboro, N.C.

Meanwhile, the third-seeded and No. 11-ranked Terrapins (21-11) can only think about what might have been.

They held a 45-42 halftime lead, but under a barrage of three-pointers from Williams, Battier and Dunleavy, they soon fell behind 61-47.

"We made a great run to get back in the game, and we did what we had to do to put ourselves in a position to win the game," Maryland coach Gary Williams said.

Down 82-79, Maryland sophomore point guard Steve Blake, a Miami Lakes native, hit a tying three-pointer with 8.1 seconds left that set the stage for James' heroics.

"It was kind of funny," James said. "As soon as Jason Williams started penetrating, I said to myself, "I'm going to get a tap' because I knew they had big guys back there and everyone would fly at him and make a difficult shot for him. So, I just focused on the ball and went up and tapped it in."

Dixon, who scored a team-best 17, got the ball near his bench and launched a buzzer-beater that looked as though it would -- what else? -- overshadow James' play.

"I thought Dixon's shot was in," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "It was right on line."

"It felt good when it left my hand," Dixon said. "It's a shot I practice. A couple inches to the left. If I would have had a couple more inches to the right, it would have been all net and we would have won the game. But it came up short."

NO. 6 UNC 70, GA. TECH 63: Sophomore star guard Joseph Forte struggled through a third straight subpar shooting game, but he found his touch in time to score nine of his game-best 27 in the waning minutes to hold off the pesky Yellow Jackets.

"I had a better second half as the game got closer," said Forte, who hit 10 of 25 shots and played the final 9:07 with four fouls.

"Once again, Forte carried his team," Tech coach Paul Hewitt said.

But this game, the strength of the Heels (25-5), in the conference final for a 27th time in 48 years and going for their 16th championship, was their defense, led by senior center Brendan Haywood. He held former Lakeland Kathleen star center Alvin Jones to seven points on 3-of-16 shooting.

UNC, which saw forward Kris Lang go down with a right ankle sprain, also got the benefit of a couple of eyebrow-raising calls in the final minute. Forte appeared to slip but drew a foul and hit both free throws for 66-63 lead with 33.6 seconds left.

Following a Georgia Tech (17-12) turnover, freshman guard Brian Morrison spotted reserve forward Julius Peppers alone under the basket. But Peppers, a star defensive end, confessed he probably "got away" with a traveling before his decisive dunk.

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