INDIANAPOLIS – Call them freshmen. Please, do not call them kids.
Led by Tyus Jones and Jahlil Okafor, Duke’s talented group of youngsters played like salty old pros 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.
Okafor, the likely first pick in the NBA Draft if he decides to leave, got outplayed by Badgers center Frank Kaminsky most of the night but came through like a veteran when the pressure was highest.
The 211-cm 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, raucous dog pile — a scene very 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.
“They showed such grit tonight,” said coach Mike Krzyzewski, whose five titles put him alone in second place on the all-time list behind John Wooden. “Our bench was spectacular, and like we said about two months ago, eight is enough. Eight is enough.”
Among the eight players who share all the playing time are Okafor, his buddy, Jones, and another freshman, Justise Winslow. They all might playing at an NBA arena near you next season.
But Grayson Allen?
The most unheralded of Krzyzewski’s first-year players, who averages four points a game, 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 and kept Duke in it when Okafor was on the bench with his third and fourth fouls and Wisconsin (36-4) looked like it was about to pull away.
“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 31-31 halftime tie into a 48-39 lead after Kaminsky made a layup with 13:23 left.
Kaminsky had 21 points and 12 rebounds to Okafor’s 10 and three, but “Frank the Tank” struggled to get a good look down the stretch. On Okafor’s first late bucket, Kaminsky tried to wrap an arm around him, but Okafor just powered his way through it for the bucket and the foul. He missed the free throw, but a different point had been made.
In the seconds leading up to that basket, Winslow appeared to step on the baseline. But the whistle never blew and he delivered it to Okafor for the score.