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James' last-second tip-in lifts Duke over Maryland

Blue Devils will meet arch-rival Tar Heels in today's title contest

No. 3 Duke 84, No. 11 Maryland 82

ATLANTA — When slumping Nate James lost his starting spot in the final week of the season, the fifth-year senior never stopped working hard.

No. 3 Duke is thankful for that.

James tipped in a missed runner from Jason Williams with 1.3 seconds left, and Shane Battier scored 20 points as the Blue Devils edged No. 11 Maryland 84-82 in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament semifinals Saturday.

"You just don't fall into those types of plays, you make those plays happen," Battier said. "That's the result of a five-year player making a big play in a big game."

Duke (28-4) will play arch-rival North Carolina in Sunday's championship game.

James was 1-of-9 for 4 points against the Terrapins on Senior Day as the Blue Devils were handed their worst loss of the season, 91-80 on Feb. 27.

That game ended a stretch for James in which he was 1-for-14 from 3-point range as he lost his starting position to freshman Chris Duhon.

But James remained positive, and coach Mike Krzyzewski insisted he could play a big role in the postseason.

He ended up doing just that Saturday.

"I run my own race," James said. "People say I'm overshadowed, but I just enjoy every game, every season."

His teammates never lost faith that the 6-foot-6 forward would find his game again.

"You don't make the play that he did at the end of the game without being through some wars and having experience in tough games. That was Nate right there," Battier said.

Battier didn't think it would be hard to come back from such an emotional win.

"We're a program of championships and every time we're in a championship situation we get up," he said.

With losses by highly-ranked teams such as Michigan State, Illinois, Florida and Iowa State in conference tournaments, the Blue Devils and Tar Heels both might have locked up No. 1 seeds with ACC semifinal wins.

Duke came into the conference tournament without injured center Carlos Boozer, while North Carolina had lost three of five entering the postseason.

"It's pretty funny because we're the first teams everyone thought would go out, and here we are, the last two standing," Battier said.

Williams added 19 points, and James 14 as the Blue Devils snapped Maryland's six-game winning streak.

"We showed we're a good team," said Maryland's Steve Blake. "We can hang in there with anybody and beat anybody. The thing is we'll just have to stay positive about the way we played. It's tough to talk about right now."

None of James' points were bigger than his last bucket. He went up in a crowd and tipped in the winning shot after Blake's 3-pointer had rallied the Terrapins from a 14-point second-half deficit to an 82-82 tie with 8.1 seconds left.

A half-court shot by Juan Dixon at the buzzer nearly went in, but it bounced off the rim.

"Talk about two teams fighting cleanly and going after it," Krzyzewski said. "I thought Dixon's shot was in. It was right on line."

Maryland (21-10) has not won an ACC crown since 1984.

The No. 6 Tar Heels will try to stop second-seeded Duke from becoming just the third team in 48 years to win three straight ACC tournament titles. They beat Georgia Tech 70-63 in the first semifinal.

The two North Carolina schools separated by eight miles tied for the ACC regular-season title, split the season series and will meet in the ACC title game for the 10th time.

Third-seeded Maryland was making its seventh straight appearance in the ACC semifinals — the second-best run in league history — and rallied down the stretch behind some clutch outside shooting. But it couldn't stop the defending champs when it had to.

NO. 6 NORTH CAROLINA 70, GEORGIA TECH 63: Joseph Forte didn't have his normal shooting touch and was on the verge of fouling out. Still, there was little doubt he would have the ball for North Carolina at the end.

The sophomore guard scored 27 points, including two critical free throws, and the No. 6 Tar Heels survived a scare from feisty Georgia Tech for a 70-63 victory Saturday in the semifinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.

Forte, who also had 12 rebounds, made the free throws with 33.6 seconds remaining after a disputed foul call against Tech's T.J. Vines.

Forte finished with a layup at the buzzer as the Tar Heels (25-5) advanced to the final against the winner of the other semifinal between No. 3 Duke and No. 11 Maryland.

"My teammates have confidence in me," Forte said, "and I have confidence in myself."

Even though Forte was struggling from the outside, forcing him to penetrate the lane for many of his points.

"We expect him to get it going," teammate Ronald Curry said. "When it wasn't going in for him, coach was like, 'What do you want to do?' We were saying, 'Hey, get the ball to Joe.' Even if he's 0-for-20, we still want him to take the last shot."

Forte avoided his fifth foul and made most of the key baskets down the stretch — a 3-pointer than sneaked over the rim, a 15-foot jumper with about two minutes left, and the two free throws after Shaun Fein hit a 3-pointer to bring Tech within 64-63.