CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It isn't often you see the 10-year-old son of the opposing coach asking for Duke player autographs, but after the Blue Devils' 70-65 victory against Florida on Saturday evening, who could blame him?
Little Kevin Kruger, son of Gator Coach Lon Kruger, knew what he was doing when he ventured into the Blue Devil locker room an hour after the national semifinal game at Charlotte Coliseum. No dummy, he made a beeline for swingman Grant Hill, who graciously signed away.
As it turns out, it was one of the few things Hill gave up to a Gator all night.
Hill scored 25 points, made eight of 13 shots, collected six rebounds, had five assists and two blocks. And that was only the half of it.
On the defensive end, the 6-8 guard/forward/whatever put the glove on Florida's Craig Brown, the Gators' best pure shooter. Brown finished with eight points--seven below his season average--and generally was reduced to spectator as Hill and the Blue Devils overcame a 13-point second-half deficit.
Afterward, teammates queued up to praise Hill.
"What is it that he can't do?" said Duke freshman point guard Jeff Capel, who was bailed out by Hill all night. "There isn't anything on the court that Grant Hill can't do."
He will get no argument from Antonio Lang, the Duke forward who happily serves as Hill's publicity flak.
"Grant's performance tonight was definitely was one of the best performances in Final Four history," said Lang, who sat out much of the first half because of three fouls. "I feel good just to be out there and say I witnessed it. Grant did everything tonight and we jumped on his back and I really think he took us to the promised land, if you want a little analogy and something to write in the paper."
The promised land, of course, is the championship game, a place that Duke knows well. When the Blue Devils face Arkansas in Monday night's game, it will mark the fifth time in the last nine seasons that Duke has advanced to the championship bracket. Three of those appearances have featured Hill, which pretty much rules out the coincidence factor.
Hill played all 40 minutes Saturday night. He shut down Brown and lit up whatever Florida defender Kruger sent his way. Brown . . . Dan Cross . . . Brian Thompson, it didn't matter.
"At that point," Kruger said, "you kind of choose your poison a little bit."
When the Gators tried to crowd Hill, he found the open teammate for a clear shot. When they gave him room, Hill made jumpers or drove through the lane.
Actually, Hill didn't have any choice but to take over the game. Lang was on the bench for much of the first half. Center Cherokee Parks spent the first 20 minutes watching Gators Andrew DeClercq and Dametri Hill outplay him. Capel and guard Chris Collins were equally ineffective in the backcourt.
The result: Duke trailed at halftime for the third time during this NCAA tournament.
"We knew they were good," Hill said. "But when they came out, they were better than we thought they were."
As the Blue Devils struggled, Florida put together a 20-3 scoring run that stretched from 6:32 in the first half to 18:13 in the second half. Suddenly Duke trailed, 45-32, reason enough for Blue Devil Coach Mike Krzyzewski to call a quick timeout.
"We were still reacting to Florida instead of forcing the action," he said. "If we were going to do that, we were going to lose by 25."
Krzyzewski's message in the huddle during the timeout was short and not so sweet. Down by 13 points and the game slipping away, he issued a challenge.
"This is it," he told them. "You have to play 18 minutes of basketball."
So they did, chipping away at Florida's lead until finally, with 4:42 to play, Hill made a short jumper over Brown to put Duke ahead, 61-60.
Less than 30 seconds later, Brown made only his second three-pointer of the game to give the Gators their last lead. After that, the Blue Devils squirmed ahead and for a change of pace, someone other than Hill helped.
Capel made a three-pointer at the 2:31 mark.
Clark slapped the ball from Cross' hands as the Florida guard tried a go-ahead shot with 46 seconds left.
Parks, who was considerably more active in the second half, missed a jumper, but grabbed the rebound and converted the second attempt with 14.3 seconds remaining.
Lang took a charge from Cross with 10.8 seconds left. And with 1.7 seconds left, with Florida unable or unwilling to foul, Lang took a pass from Clark and dunked for the final points of the game.
And, as Clark would say later, "that was that."
Florida's magical season ended after 29 victories and its first Final Four appearance. So impressed was Krzyzewski with the Gators' effort that he made sure to stop Brown and Cross as they walked off the court.
"I just told them it was an honor to play against them," Krzyzewski said.
The feeling was mutual. Brown couldn't say enough about the job Hill did on him. What else could he do? Hill held him to zero points in the first half and only nine field goal attempts for the game.
Meanwhile, the gracious Cross didn't say a peep about the stripped ball by Clark or the charging call in Lang's favor.
"The game was very physical," he said. "The call could have gone either way."
It went Duke's way, which is why Kevin Kruger spent the postgame with pen and program in hand. One of the last players he approached was Parks, who jotted his signature and then handed the program back.
"Hey," Parks said, "tell your dad they played a good game."
Everyone did. Especially the great Hill.