The glittering prize fell into Johnny Dawkins' hands with seven seconds left. Craig Neal's missed jumper and Dawkins' rebound and ensuing free throws gave Duke University the Atlantic Coast Conference championship today.
A team with a great talent for survival, top-ranked Duke prevailed, 68-67, enduring a last-gasp rally by sixth-ranked Georgia Tech that erased a nine-point deficit and allowed the Yellow Jackets to come within inches of an upset.
But with his team trailing by one, Neal's shot from deep in the corner with 10 seconds left bounced away. Dawkins made his two free throws impassively to give the Blue Devils the victory at Greensboro Coliseum.
"This is as happy as I've been as a coach," Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "But I have to feel empathy for them."
On the pivotal play, Mark Price's drive to the lane yielded nothing, so he dished off to Neal, deep in the corner. His jumper was just short, bouncing off the rim and directly into the arms of Dawkins with seven seconds left.
"I felt like I choked," Neal said. " . . . I was real low. I'd like to have swallowed my heart."
"We needed just one more break," Georgia Tech Coach Bobby Cremins said. "One more rebound."
Instead, Dawkins hugged his rebound very, very close, Neal slumped in shame, and Price tackled Dawkins for a foul. Dawkins made his two free throws for a 68-65 lead, and the Blue Devils let Price score with one second left just to loosen up the net, which was going to come down via scissors in a few moments anyway.
"It was a seesaw," Dawkins said. "I didn't feel good until the last second went off the clock. I was fortunate the rebound came right to me, and I just covered up. I never thought about missing the foul shots; I just thought about making them."
Dawkins scored a game-high 20 points and was named the tournament's outstanding player. Three Blue Devils were named to the all-tournament team -- Dawkins, Mark Alarie, who had 17 points and six rebounds today, and David Henderson, who had 10 points and six rebounds.
Duke (32-2) will return here as the No. 1 seed in the East regional of the NCAA tournament and will play Mississippi Valley State in the opening round Thursday.
Georgia Tech (25-6), which was attempting to become the first team to win back-to-back ACC titles since North Carolina in 1981-82, is seeded second in the Southeast regional and will play Marist in the first round Thursday in Baton Rouge, La.
Price and Duane Ferrell -- another first-team all-tournament selection along with Maryland's Len Bias -- scored 16 points each today in what was a sometime effort for an obviously drained Georgia Tech team. The Yellow Jackets had barely defeated Maryland, 64-62, Saturday afternoon, on Ferrell's last-second steal and slam.
But Duke was tired too, barely escaping Virginia, 75-70, in the semifinals. The result was an edgy, sometimes sloppy, but mainly physical game in which both teams got in early foul trouble and neither could maintain the momentum for long.
The Blue Devils led, 37-34, at halftime and took a nine-point lead with 16:46 to go in the second period on six straight points, Alarie's jumper making it 43-34.
But the Blue Devils watched it disappear with Georgia Tech's 15-3 scoring run. John Salley had eight of the points, his 10-foot jumper ending the stretch and giving Georgia Tech a 49-46 margin with 11:31 left. Duke, meanwhile, went without a field goal from Alarie's jumper at 16:46 until Dawkins' jumper with 9:34 to go, which produced a 50-49 lead.
From there it was a free-for-all. The Blue Devils took a 58-53 lead with 5:52 left, but another Georgia Tech run, this one 10-4, gave the Yellow Jackets a 63-62 lead with 1:59 left on Ferrell's jumper. The teams exchanged one-point leads from that point on until Dawkins' free throws.
By that point Duke simply had worn down the Yellow Jackets, who lost guard Bruce Dalrymple to his fifth foul with 3:45 left. Tom Hammonds had gotten his fourth with 14:45 remaining, and Salley got his fourth with 10:08 left.
The fouls proved crucial. With 44 seconds left and the Yellow Jackets leading, 65-64, on Neal's jumper, Alarie took a pass on the base line and pulled up for an eight-footer. Salley and Hammonds both backed off, afraid of the fifth foul, and Alarie made it easily to give the Blue Devils the lead for good at 66-65.
"I shot-faked, and neither of them went for it," Alarie said. "They backed off and I didn't feel like I was pressured at all."
That set up Georgia Tech's final shot. Cremins called timeout and outlined the play: Price would look for Salley or Hammonds down low; if they weren't there he would try to penetrate the lane for a shot. But there was nothing inside, and when Price made his move Tommy Amaker cut him off, and Price passed off to Neal.
"I was happy with the shot," Cremins said. "We had to go with the penetration, and Neal was wide open. It was the right pass; Price was unselfish. Neal can make that shot."
Under the circumstances, it was the right decision. Price had shot miserably, the usually deadly point guard going six for 18 from the field.
"I could have shot but I would have forced it," he said. "Craig was wide open so I let it go. My shot just wasn't real good today."
But Neal, a reserve who came in for Dalrymple, wasn't much better, finishing one for four. And although his final jumper was in the right direction, it was shy.
"This is going to hurt for a long time," he said. "This was our game; they had to take it away. I thought it was good, but every time you shoot you think it's good. Then you see it miss, and it's a different story.