Sunday, March 28, 1999

Blue Devils took care of business on the boards

The Associated Press

        ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Duke and Elton Brand haven't been beaten in many categories this season, let alone embarrassed.

        On Saturday night, in a 68-62 victory over Michigan State in the NCAA tournament semifinals, the Blue Devils got some big-time redemption in the battle of the boards.

        “Whenever we see Elton get that face — I really can't describe it, but he gets that look of confidence — it really picks our whole team up,” forward Shane Battier said of Brand's 18-point, 15-rebound night.

        Duke was overwhelmed by 16 rebounds in a Dec. 2 game against Michigan State, its worst inside effort of the season. It was worse on the offensive glass, with the Spartans holding a 25-5 advantage.

        Duke vowed in the week leading up to its NCAA tournament Final Four rematch with the Spartans that things would be much different. And this season, Duke (37-1) has pretty much gotten its way.

        Setting the tone from the start in its first Final Four appearance since 1994, Duke held a 28-14 halftime advantage on the glass. That included doubling the Spartans 16-8 on the offensive end with the hulking Brand and the shot-blocking Battier doing most of the inside work.

        Coach Mike Krzyzewski drilled the Blue Devils for a week on boxing out in one of his patented intense practice sessions.

        “Oh God, it was ridiculous,” forward Chris Carrawell said of Duke's practices that stressed rebounding. “But it paid off, it paid off.

        “If you don't go rebound, it's pathetic,” Carrawell added. “It was one of those things where we worked on the fundamentals of just blocking out.”

        Brand, the national player of the year, was admittedly out of shape in the first meeting four months ago when he grabbed just three rebounds and scored 12 points. This time, Brand had 13 rebounds by halftime in a satisfying grudge match for the 6-foot-8, 270-pound sophomore.

        “I felt I was in better shape,” Brand said. “The guys found me in a great position to score and I had a lot of confidence I would play better.”

        “The difference was the first half,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “That assault they had on us in rebounding was incredible.”

        While the Spartans (33-5) were able to set the tempo for the most part against the nation's highest-scoring team, Duke's defense also took over in the final five minutes of the first half, holding Michigan State scoreless to build yet another double-digit lead.

        In fact, Brand cleared the defensive glass on four straight Michigan State misses as the Blue Devils led at halftime for the 34th time in 38 games.

        “It was so important for us to assert ourselves and Elton was the guy,” Krzyzewski said.

        And with Duke 33-0 when leading at halftime, Michigan State — a comeback team all season — appeared to have little hope.

        However, Duke's second-half strategy didn't include Brand picking up his fourth foul with 10:12 left and taking a seat next to Krzyzewski for 51/2 minutes as the Spartans pecked away at the Blue Devils' lead.

        “We knew we had to play every possession with all of our heart,” Krzyzewski said of Brand's foul trouble. “Points were so hard to come by.

        “Elton's foul trouble put a spin on the game that might have made it even more difficult if our bench hadn't stepped up.”

        “Elton really had a transformation from earlier in the season,” Battier said, thinking back to the first matchup. “The last game (against Michigan State) really embarrassed him. He looked really poor, but he recommitted himself to being the best player he could be. He was extra determined to come out and play well tonight.”