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THIS TIME AROUND, THE BLUE DEVILS CLAIMED THE NETS

THIS TIME AROUND, THE BLUE DEVILS CLAIMED THE NETS

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Christian Laettner rolled the two-inch piece of nylon between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand.

Moments earlier he had rolled a leather ball off those same fingers, through that same nylon. His 16-foot jump shot at the buzzer in overtime had beaten Connecticut 79-78 in the East Regional finals.He had just helped snip the net, something the Devils didn't do a year ago in the Meadowlands, hoping instead to clip bigger nets in Seattle at the Final Four.

But Saturday, perhaps knowing the difficulty of trying to win in the Final Four, the Devils took the scissors to the nylon.

As Laettner stood nearby, Mike Krzyzewski climbed the ladder, made the last two cuts, held the net and gave a polite wave to the Duke fans who had lingered to share in the moment.

Krzyzewski said later he would have ``cut the net last year, but no one would give me a damn ladder.'

Laettner's shot, one of many that has made this NCAA tournament special, came off a play called, appropriately, ``special' and continued a year in which Duke's basketball team has been, well, special.

And, perhaps more importantly, it proved that Krzyzewski is, indeed, ``Special K.'

Duke is on its way to its third straight Final Four and fourth in the last five years.

Not since UCLA's magical 10-year run through the tournament from 1966 to 1975 has a team been to the national semifinals so often. No team has been three straight years since the Akeem Olajuwon teams at Houston in 1982-84.

In each year, Krzyzewski has reached the semifinals with a different kind of team - the senior dominated squad of '86, the Ferry-led teams of the last two seasons, and this one, with no proven star, a lot of young players and a lot of questions.

Duke's string of successes, despite the fact the Blue Devils have yet to win the national title, is impressive. This is the day of parity in college basketball.

Through Saturday's championship games in the East and Midwest, 17 of the 58 tournament games had been decided by two points or less. In 28 of the 58, the winning team was on top by four or less.

Saturday's win at the Meadowlands was just another routine win at the buzzer.

``It's like the first 39 or 44 minutes don't mean anything,' Krzyzewski said. ``This is the most exciting NCAA tournament ever. I hate to use that word parity, but there are so many good teams.

``To see kids respond under pressure, it's incredible. This sure beats the hell out of the two weeks before the Super Bowl.'

Going to the Final Four, Krzyzewski said, can never be boring. Every time you go, he said, is special.

While he hesitated to compare this year's team with those he took to the Final Four in 1986, '88 and '89, it does have certain qualities.

``I don't want to start comparing teams,' he said, ``but this team is somewhat like our '86 team. With that team we could do things in the middle of plays. There was such great communication.'

That was evident Saturday, when, with 2.6 seconds left, Krzyzewski changed the play called during a timeout by simply telling Laettner run ``special.'

There was no question, no hesitation.

That one play was a reaffirmation of Krzyzewski's confidence in his players, his system, himself.

``The play was there,' he said. ``It was just there. I had to do it. I would have killed myself if I hadn't.'

He didn't question himself at the time, but there had been questions about this team.

``We had questions before the season began,' he said, ``but that doesn't necessarily mean bad. Sometimes it means you need to grow. This team has grown and I think it can get better.'

This Duke team is different because it is a senior-freshman oriented team. Seniors Robert Brickey, Alaa Abdelnaby and Phil Henderson have been no more crucial to the success than have freshmen Bobby Hurley, Billy McCaffrey and Thomas Hill.

In between has been Laettner, the sophomore, who has been on the cutting edge as Duke's next great player.

Krzyzewski also has pulled together a group of diverse personalities, from the introspective Henderson to the cocky, often brash Hurley.

It has been a year-long process, more than that, really, considering he had to get his team together after Henderson decided to transfer last summer and then changed his mind.

And two weeks ago, the talk of the ACC was how Henderson had lashed out at his teammates following the loss to Georgia Tech in the ACC tournament semifinals. He had referred to some of his teammates as ``babies.'

There were no babies in the Meadowlands Saturday.

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