Jason Williams leads a second-half surge as the Blue Devils top Missouri 94-81 and advance to the Sweet 16.
Duke sophomore guard Jason Williams didn't try to do anything out of the ordinary when Missouri seemed on the verge of upsetting, or at least unnerving, the East Region's top seed.
"It's just about playing basketball," he said, shrugging. "Basketball's a game of making plays."
At that, he's extraordinary.
With his team clinging to a one-point lead midway through the second half, Williams scored seven of his game-high 31 and handed out five assists in a dazzlingly efficient seven-minute span that sparked a 94-81 win in an emotionally and physically taxing showdown Saturday afternoon.
The No. 1-ranked Blue Devils (31-4) head to Philadelphia for the Sweet 16 for the 15th time in their past 17 NCAA Tournament appearances. There, they meet No. 4 seed UCLA (22-8), which beat underdog Utah State.
Interestingly, the last time the Blue Devils won the national championship, in 1992, they began in Greensboro, continued to Philadelphia and ultimately beat Michigan in Minneapolis, the site of this year's Final Four.
But the No. 9-seeded Tigers (20-13) loomed as a daunting hurdle.
Duke's Mike Krzyzewski wasn't looking forward to a coaching matchup against his former player and assistant, Missouri's Quin Snyder. He didn't want to compete against someone he loves and didn't know if the subplot might distract him. Snyder, who knows the Duke offense and defense as well as any coach, echoed those sentiments before and after the game.
"A couple times, I found myself looking down at the Duke bench and thinking, "Wow. That's Coach K down there.' It was part strange and part scary."
Williams, whom Snyder helped recruit to Duke before he left for Columbia, proved to be the scariest. After a sluggish start, he helped stake Duke to a 15-point lead late in the first half.
But Missouri star sophomore forward Kareem Rush, coming off a subpar shooting performance against Georgia, hit a pair of three-pointers in the final minute to cut the deficit to 43-37 at the break. Rush's fifth three-pointer (he finished with 29 points) brought the Tigers within 63-62 with 10:42 remaining.
"I've played with a lot of NBA guys and he's right there with them," Duke sophomore forward Mike Dunleavy said of Rush. "He's really slippery and hard to guard. I had a great view of his backside a lot today."
Krzyzewski nearly called timeout, but as he has with this team all season, he resisted the urge and let it play basketball.
"Today's game was really a players' game, not so much a coaches' game," he said. "We rode them."
Thanks to Williams, senior forward Shane Battier, Dunleavy and senior forward Nate James, the Blue Devils answered with near offensive perfection against a small Missouri lineup that hoped to contain Duke's three-point attack.
If it wasn't Battier driving past the less agile Tajudeen Soyoye for layups or fouls (he hit 12 of 13 free throws en route to 27 points), it was Williams going at a frenetic pace to the basket for layups or assists. (Duke freshman guard Chris Duhon, who played 37 minutes, was so exhausted he was dizzy afterward. He was okay.)
The Blue Devils scored on 13 of their next 14 possessions _ the one on which they didn't was a missed one-and-one by Battier _ for a decisive 28-11 run.
"Things were just going," said Williams, who had a game-high nine assists. "We kind of got into a little spurt where things were going our way and we took advantage of that."
"They made the plays when it counted," Rush said. "That's what great teams do."
UCLA 75, UTAH ST. 50: Although its vaunted full-court press didn't produce many turnovers, the Bruins defense did force No. 12-seeded Utah State into a pair of crucial backcourt miscues that capped a decisive 8-0 run midway through the second half.
"I was out for a second, I got cut (on the face) and I had to clean it up and I had just came back in with a lot of energy," said junior forward Matt Barnes, who turned the back-to-back turnovers into lay-ups for a 49-36 lead with 9:09 left. "I felt that was the turning point of the game."
The Cinderellalike Aggies (28-6), who stunned Ohio State in overtime Thursday, committed only five turnovers in the second half.
"We'd faced that all night long," a disappointed Utah State coach Stew Morrill said of the UCLA press, "and we just turned it over in bunches in one period there and that was basically the ballgame because all of sudden, we're down double digits again and as poorly as we were shooting, it was very hard to recover."
Utah State, which at one point in the first half missed 22 straight shots, managed to make 17 of 60 field goals for the game (28.3 percent, a season low).
The Bruins, winners of 11 of their past 13, are in the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in perennially embattled coach Steve Lavin's five seasons. They have met Duke once in the NCAA Tournament, losing in the Sweet 16 in 1990. This season, Duke lost at Stanford, a place where UCLA won.
"Not only do we have to face them, they have to face us," senior point guard Earl Watson said of the Blue Devils. "We carry a legacy. We carry a tradition."