Over a matter of mere minutes, the youngsters at Duke grew into salty old pros.
Call them freshmen. But please, do not call them kids.
Led by Tyus Jones and Jahlil Okafor, Duke’s talented group of potential one-and-doners played like veterans down the stretch, outscoring Wisconsin by 14 points over the final 13 minutes Monday night to grit out a 68-63 victory for the program’s fifth national title.
”It shows a lot about their confidence,” said Quinn Cook, Duke’s only senior starter.
Okafor, the likely first pick in the NBA draft if he decides to leave, got outplayed by Badgers senior center Frank Kaminsky most of the night but came through big when the pressure was highest.
The 6-foot-11 freshman made two straight buckets over Kaminsky, sandwiched between a pair of 3-pointers from Jones, to help the Blue Devils (35-4) turn a one-time nine-point deficit into an eight-point lead with 1:22 left.
A furious Wisconsin rally ensued, but it came up short. Then, it was Okafor on the bottom of a rowdy dog pile – a scene reminiscent of the last time the Final Four was Indianapolis, back in 2010 when Duke edged out Butler in another scintillating final. The Blue Devils also took one here in 1991 – the Grant Hill, Christian Laettner squad.
”It was heaven,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said of the stadium where he’s now 4-0 in Final Fours. ”It was really divine.”
Krzyzewski now has five titles, alone in second place on the all-time list, behind only John Wooden.
Coach K did it with a collection of All-Americans – many of whom won’t be around too long.
There’s Okafor, his buddy, Jones – who finished with 23 points and was named MVP – and another freshman, Justise Winslow. All might be playing at an NBA arena near you next season.
Grayson Allen? He’ll be back.
The most overlooked of Krzyzewski’s first-year players stepped up with Okafor on the bench for much of the second half in foul trouble. Allen, the slam-dunk champion at the high school McDonald’s All-American contest last year, scored 16 points – 12 above his average – including eight straight for Duke after Wisconsin (36-4) had gone up by nine.
”It was fun to watch my teammates do what they do,” Okafor said. ”They have my back the entire season, and it was no different tonight.”
This was a savvy, calm, collected comeback against the team that wrote the book on that all season. Wisconsin kept its cool two nights earlier in an upset over undefeated Kentucky and looked like it would close the deal when it turned a 31-all halftime tie into a 48-39 lead after Kaminsky made a layup with 13:23 left.
Then, suddenly, Duke looked like veterans and Wisconsin looked like kids.
The Blue Devils took the lead for good with 4:08 left when Jones made a 3, then fell hard to the ground while tangled up with Bronson Koenig. Dick Vitale’s call: ”You cannot be serious!”
On Duke’s next possession, Kaminsky tried to wrap an arm around Okafor in the paint, but the big fella powered his way through it for the bucket and the foul. He missed the free throw, but a different point was made: Kaminsky had 21 points and 12 rebounds to Okafor’s 10 and three, yet down the stretch, ”Frank the Tank” struggled to get a good look and Okafor helped win the game.