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 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, 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-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.
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.
That, and the foul count, had the Wisconsin Twitterverse fuming about some calls. The Badgers got whistled for only two fouls in the first half, but the count in the second half was Badgers 13, Blue Devils 6. Duke shot 20 free throws to Wisconsin’s 10.
“It was a situation where you just have to be able to handle all the hands and the checking,” Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. “There was more body contact in this game than any game we played all year, and I just feel sorry for my guys that all of the sudden a game was like that, and I think they’re struggling with that a little bit.”
Even though Kaminsky schooled Okafor to draw both his third and fourth fouls early in the second half, Wisconsin couldn’t pull away from an aggressive Duke defense that allowed only 55 points a game in the five contests leading to the final.
Wisconsin shot 41 percent — 7 points under its season average.
“Shots just weren’t falling, and they were getting to the line, and when the tide changes like that, it’s kind of hard to get back in the flow,” said Badgers forward Sam Dekker said. “We tried to play through it but they made more plays than we did.”
Nigel Hayes had 13 points and Dekker, the key guy down the stretch against Kentucky, had a very quiet 12 for the Badgers, who were trying to bring their first title back to Madison since 1941. Dekker used his shirt to dab away tears during postgame interviews — a much different scene than the loose, fun-loving media sessions the Badgers put on all tournament.
For Duke, it was all smiles. The Blue Devils are taking another trophy home to the Cameron Crazies.
“All these guys have become students of the game, and they share knowledge,” Krzyzewski said.
This was not a dominant, wire-to-wire effort the likes of which some of the Duke title teams have enjoyed in seasons past.
Kentucky and its quest for perfection stole all the headlines this season. So, playing in relative shadows down on Tobacco Road was this group, which actually might have more one-and-dones than John Calipari says goodbye to in the Bluegrass State this year. Calipari was in the building, by the way — honored for his induction into the Naismith Hall of Fame. He got booed heavily.
In the end, it was all confetti and cheers. And it’s not Calipari’s team, but Krzyzewski’s, that will end up in the history books.
“It was heaven,” Krzyzewski said of the stadium where he’s now 4-0 in Final Fours. “It was really divine.”