Mark Alarie, Duke's superb senior forward, calls it "the little game." It has gone on for three years now, every time Duke and Georgia Tech take the floor and, almost invariably, it decides the big game.
The little game between the little men, the extraordinary guards these two teams possess, is one of college basketball's best rivalries. Nineteen days ago in Atlanta, Mark Price and Bruce Dalrymple won the little game and the Yellow Jackets beat the Blue Devils by seven.
Today, in rollicking Cameron Indoor Stadium, Johnny Dawkins and Tommy Amaker turned that around and so did Duke, blowing Georgia Tech away, 75-59, as 8,564 fans almost blew the roof off this old fun house that passes for a gymnasium.
"No one said anything; there was nothing verbalized," Alarie said. "But Johnny and Tommy knew they were outplayed last time, and they came into this game as if they were on a mission."
On a mission from Coach Mike Krzyzewski, who had chastised his team for not playing tough enough in Atlanta. But more than that, on a mission for themselves, because if there's one thing about this little game, it's that no one has ever really gained the upper hand.
Today's victory leaves No. 4 Duke firmly in second place in the ACC with a 9-2 record and 22-2 overall. Georgia Tech, No. 2 in the polls but a loser twice in six days, is 6-3 in the league and 18-4 in all games.
Perhaps almost as important, the little-game record over three years is 4-4. Dawkins and Price, the senior all-Americas who have gone at each other for four years (Amaker and Dalrymple are juniors) are 5-5. And Krzyzewski and Bobby Cremins, the bright young coaches who have molded these programs, are 6-6 in their five years of dueling each other.
"What's really important, though, is that we put ourselves back on the map as far as the conference is concerned," Krzyzewski said. "We had to win this game here to have a chance."
Dawkins and Amaker needed some help today. Although Dawkins scored 22 points, and he and Amaker held Price to 12 points and helped force him into eight turnovers, it was Alarie who provided the extra edge.
"Alarie is just a great player," Cremins said. "He is absolutely without doubt a first-team all-ACC player. Vote for him."
Two years ago, Alarie was first-team all-ACC. But last year, when Krzyzewski asked him to play outside more, his play dropped off. He was still solid, still second-team all-conference, but not the same. This year, he's back inside when he wants to go there, and his numbers -- 17.6 points and six rebounds per game, 59 percent shooting -- reflect his rediscovered confidence.
"When I can go inside and outside, I'm more versatile and that makes me tougher to stop," Alarie said after scoring 24 points and getting nine rebounds.
"I like the idea that I'm more diversified. It's a comfortable feeling."
Alarie was comfortable early, scoring eight points as Duke took a 24-20 lead with 8:25 to go in the first half.
The game was as sizzling as Cameron was hot. Georgia Tech's size and quickness often made the Blue Devils change their shots and resulted in some turnovers and easy Yellow Jackets baskets.
Even with Price only managing two shots, Georgia Tech hung in, thanks to John Salley (who finished with 17 points) and Dalrymple (11 points, seven rebounds). The first half ended with Duke leading, 34-33, and it looked as if this would be 40 minutes played to a final shot.
But in the second half, Duke's defense took over, holding a team that was averaging 80.4 points a game to 26 points.
David Henderson started it with a steal from Price and a feed to Dawkins for a layup. Alarie then hit four straight shots, two of them set up by steals, and Cremins called time with Duke up by 46-37.
"We had a chance to be up three or five at the half and we were behind," Cremins said. "Then they came out in the second half and completely outplayed us. They were just better than us."
Georgia Tech wasn't finished. Three straight Duke turnovers led to baskets that cut the lead to 50-44.
But over the next four minutes, the Yellow Jackets had five chances to get to within four and never did, the Duke defense proving impenetrable when it had to be.
"At halftime we knew we had played good half-court defense but had given them easy baskets," Amaker said. "Once we took those away, we were okay."
Fittingly, the sequence that put Duke back in control involved Dawkins and Price. After a Price miss that could have made it 50-46, Dawkins penetrated the lane, did a double-dip and tossed in a circus shot.
The lead was 52-44, Tech never got closer than six again, and when Henderson picked up a loose ball and fed Billy King for a roof-rattling dunk with 5:41 left, it was 62-49.
By then, Dawkins and Amaker had already won the little game. And with that dunk, there was no doubt about who would win the big game.