When they were really little, Johnny Dawkins and Tommy Amaker met at Lefty Driesell's basketball camp. Dawkins was in fifth grade, Amaker in fourth.
"We never saw each other again for seven years," Amaker recalled. "Then we happened to be sitting together at an all-star game. We looked at each other and it clicked: 'Basketball camp.' "
Four years later, though this time not by chance, the Washington-area buddies met near a free-throw line at a moment they will remember as a pinnacle of their sporting lives.
One more foul shot by Dawkins and they would be champions of the Atlantic Coast Conference and remain top-rated in the polls. They touched hands.
"Ice water," Amaker whispered.
"It's kind of a ritual," Amaker explained. "He says the same thing to me. It means stay cool at the line, ice things. We've done it all this year, maybe a little bit of last year, too."
As Dawkins and Amaker know what to say during such drama, Duke practices how to act. Even in harmless workouts in empty gyms, Duke takes free-throw drills seriously -- and Dawkins is among those responsible for making the important ones.
This was a swish that started some fairly cosmic ripples. With a three-point lead over Georgia Tech and just seven seconds left, Duke could not lose. So fingers finally could get unknotted -- at Greensboro Coliseum and a whole lot of homes in and near the District of Columbia.
Washingtonians have another strong rooting interest in the NCAAs. Besides Maryland, Navy, Georgetown and Virginia, do not forget the Blue Devils.
This was a sensational weekend for Mackin High School's Dawkins. He was Duke's leading scorer Sunday, the most outstanding player in the tournament and runner-up, to Walter Berry of St. John's, for the prestigious Wooden Award given to the nation's top player.
Amaker (W.T. Woodson High), Danny Ferry (DeMatha) and Billy King (Park View) also were major contributors. In all, Washington-area players had 14 of Duke's 23 field goals, seven of its 12 assists and 13 of its 34 rebounds.
King's presence was more important than his numbers. He made two of three shots from the field, one of two free throws and had a rebound; he also was partly why Georgia Tech's Mark Price missed 12 of 18 shots.
Price is capable of going out of control without the taller King pestering him. In his most recent games the past two seasons against teams ranked No. 1 (Georgetown, Michigan, North Carolina and Duke), Price is 17 for 68.
Call King a Price tag, for he was so relentlessly close that Georgia Tech's major scoring threat rarely got a chance for a squared-up shot.
Freshman Ferry was poised and tough. From the outside, he set up teammates close to the basket for easy layups with passes; from the inside, he grabbed eight rebounds.
Midway through the first half, Duke rode a Ferry from a three-point deficit to a four-point lead. From beyond the key, he hit Mark Alarie for a layup; from the left side, he later squeezed between two Georgia Tech players for a short jumper.
Then Ferry snatched a Bruce Dalrymple miss and hit the streaking Amaker with an outlet pass. Amaker made a pullup jumper.
Charitable again, Ferry fed Alarie from the left side for a short jump-hook. That made it 20-17 Duke. Two minutes later, Ferry sank two free throws for a 23-19 lead.
Underclassmen Ferry, Amaker and King helped make the championship possible, but the seniors appreciated it most. As freshmen, Dawkins, Alarie and Jay Bilas lost to Virginia by the largest margin in ACC tournament history: 43 points.
"We got laughed at," Bilas said. "Not by the fans; not by the press. We got laughed at in our faces, by the Virginia players. You never forget that.
"Maybe that's why we've won our last seven games against 'em including Saturday's tense semifinal ."
Nearby, Dawkins was talking about how Duke's offense is both structured and flexible. The players know how to use picks and passes to set up their own shots; they also know when to get out of the way and let Dawkins improvise.
"I like to be put in position for the last shot," Dawkins said.
Television cameras and several dozen reporters had him trapped on the court. The Duke students were chanting his name; the Duke mascot was parading with a sign in the shape of a tombstone that read:
"RIP. They Never Had a Chance. Nice Dressers, Though."
When Dawkins beat Georgia Tech upcourt, drew the fourth foul on Tom Hammonds and made one of the free throws, the Blue Devils seemed ready for an early celebration. They led by nine with just under 15 minutes left.
Every part of the pregame plan was working splendidly. Duke was using lots of players -- and they were playing well; Tech was tuckered.
But not ready to quit.
The Yellow Jackets actually led several times down the stretch. But Alarie hit a short jumper from the base line to give Duke its final lead. With one rebound and two free throws, Dawkins kept it.
"Excuse me," Dawkins suddenly said in the early postgame moments. He noticed that a net was being cut and he hadn't gotten a piece of it. The crowd played tighter defense on him than Georgia Tech had -- and the net was snipped by the time Dawkins struggled close.
The disappointment was brief. He got his cuts in later on the other end of the basket. And, there are other, larger nets to shoot for.