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March 20, 2008

Duke barely escapes upset-minded Belmont

MORE: Video: Andrew Skwara breaks down Duke's close call | NCAA TOURNAMENT CENTRAL

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The 15-over-2 club nearly added a new member Thursday night at the Verizon Center.

Duke (28-5) needed a steal and a layup from Gerald Henderson with 12 seconds left to ward off 15th-seeded Belmont 71-70 in what turned out to be a thrilling first-round matchup in the NCAA Tournament.

Belmont (25-9) led for most of the final two minutes, going up 70-69 on two free throws from senior guard Justin Hare with 2:02 left. The Bruins then warded off a couple of Duke misses, including a short hook from Henderson that bounced in and out.

But in the final 20 seconds, Henderson intercepted a pass, drove downcourt and leapt through traffic as he laid the ball over the front of the rim. "We will be remembered as the team that almost did it," Hare said. "It's so hard going out that way."

Hare launched a 40-foot prayer at the buzzer that glanced off the left side of the rim.

Belmont had an out-of-bounds play under its basket after Henderson's clutch drive with 4 seconds left, but an errant pass was intercepted by Nelson.

Belmont would have been just the fifth No. 15 seed to win an NCAA Tournament game. Richmond beat Syracuse in 1991, Santa Clara beat Arizona in 1993, Coppin State beat South Carolina in 1997 and Hampton beat Iowa State in 2001.

Belmont, the Atlantic Sun Conference champ, was playing in its third consecutive tournament as a No. 15 seed. The Bruins lost by a combined 69 points to UCLA and Georgetown in the past two seasons, but they felt far more confident about matching up with the Blue Devils - who lack the size and the inside scoring threat of most No. 2 seeds.

The undersized Bruins used a guard-heavy lineup to beat Duke at its own game. They constantly spread the court on offense and focused on launching 3-pointers and trying to beat defenders off the dribble. When Duke lagged off the outside shooters, Belmont shot 3-pointers. When Duke defenders moved up, Belmont ran backdoor cuts.

"When we saw the film, I noticed they were a similar team to us," Belmont guard Alex Renfroe said. "I always thought it was going to be a good game."

Renfroe was proved right.

Belmont wasn't intimidated, and had it not made some mistakes down the stretch, it could've pulled off the upset. Duke's lack of an inside game was glaring, but Belmont's lack of athleticism wasn't an issue.

Duke didn't lead by more than five points in the first half until freshman Taylor King hit a fadeaway jumper from near the free-throw line to put the Blue Devils up 42-35 at halftime.

Belmont used a 7-0 run to cut Duke's lead to 51-50, and the Bruins went on take a 58-56 lead on a three-point play from Renfroe with 10:59 left. Duke appeared to take back control when two Henderson free throws put the Blue Devils up 69-65. But Belmont's Andy Wicke answered with his fourth 3-pointer of the game. And after Duke's DeMarcus Nelson missed a 3-pointer, Henderson bumped Hare in the backcourt, sending him to the free throw line for the shots that gave Belmont a short-lived lead.

"Watching them on tape, they looked really good,'' said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. "Watching them in person, they're even better.''

MORE: Video: Andrew Skwara breaks down Duke's close call | NCAA TOURNAMENT CENTRAL

Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com.

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