INDIANAPOLIS -- When Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and then Justise Winslow decided they would attend Duke University -- that they would combine their talents under arguably the game's greatest coach -- they had one goal in mind. On Monday night, they achieved it.
The Duke Blue Devils are the 2014-15 national champions. Mike Krzyzewski has won his fifth national title, passing Adolph Rupp for second all time with a 68-63 victory. And the Wisconsin Badgers -- who played one half of one of the better national title games in recent memory -- ended their remarkable, fun-loving run in bitter sadness.
Here's how it happened:
Duke's defense did the impossible. All season, this offensive attack was one of the nation's most efficient, good enough to carry the Blue Devils through the vast majority of their consistently impressive season -- even when the defense faltered. And it did, often. In January, after two straight thrashings to midlevel ACC teams, Krzyzewski installed a zone defense, a desperation measure for a proud man-to-man proponent. Duke improved, but as late as Feb. 25, on the road at Virginia Tech, the Blue Devils were still disappearing on the defensive end. That feels so very long ago. Before Monday, Duke hadn't allowed allow a single team -- including potent Utah and lights-out Gonzaga -- more than a point per possession. On Monday night, the Blue Devils held Wisconsin to 1.03 -- the same Badgers offense that blitzed both Arizona and Kentucky to the tune of 1.2 points per trip en route to the national title game. No single factor mattered more in Duke's triumphant run. What a turnaround, and what a team.
Fouls -- or the lack thereof -- were an ongoing subplot throughout. In the first half, Duke committed seven fouls and drew the Badgers into just two, a low number for any half of basketball but not completely unheard of, given the foul-averse defensive style that gave Wisconsin the lowest fouls-per-game average (12.5) in the country this season. In the first five minutes of the half, referees Joe DeRosa, Michael Stephens and Pat Driscoll seemed determined to even things out. Wisconsin was whistled for four fouls in the first 4:24 of the second half, a couple of them questionable. By the 11:43 mark, the first half's foul discrepancy had already been reversed: Duke had given up just two team fouls and had already pushed Wisconsin into the bonus. By 9:07, Wisconsin had nine team fouls. The eighth might have been the most arguable of all: Jones appeared to lean in to a well-positioned Bronson Koenig, flailing and selling the officials … while also burying a seemingly impossible, hugely impressive floater to earn the and-1. (The ninth, a block/charge given to a seemingly out-of-control Winslow, wasn't a whole lot better.) But that stretch also included Okafor's third foul of the night, itself a close call on what looked like a mostly clean block of Frank Kaminsky. When the freshman star went to the bench, Wisconsin extended its biggest lead -- 48-39 -- of the night. When he returned, at the 10:42 mark, it took him little more than a minute to get caught grabbing a spinning Kaminsky, after which Okafor immediately left the game.
A Duke freshman almost single-handedly kept the Blue Devils in the game -- and not the one you expected. Okafor, Winslow and Jones have been Duke's big (freshman) three all season, but the fourth member of the Blue Devils' top-ranked recruiting class -- guard Grayson Allen -- quietly played some of his best basketball late in the season. On Monday night, he was spectacular. Allen's most important contribution came after Wisconsin had opened that nine-point lead. Allen hit a 3 from the right wing. Then, a possession later, he drove right and finished hard over Sam Dekker, sinking the bonus free throw for another three-point play. The next time down the court, Allen drew a foul again and made both free throws -- cutting Wisconsin's lead, which had been re-extended by a Nigel Hayes 3, to four. Early in the second half, Duke was at serious risk of letting Wisconsin pull away. Instead, Allen kept Duke alive. He wasn't done, either: His drive against Josh Gasser at the 5:32 mark gave the Blue Devils a 56-54 lead, their first of the second half. It was an absolutely crucial performance from by far the least-heralded -- and least-expected -- Blue Devils freshman.
The Duke star you did expect had a game to forget -- until, suddenly, he took over. Okafor came back to the game with 3:22 to play and immediately made his presence felt, powering through a Kaminsky grab for a bucket and a foul (and a missed free throw) in his first eight seconds on the floor. A possession later, with Duke ahead 61-58, the Badgers went right at Okafor and his four fouls -- and he managed to contain Kaminsky's baseline spin, eventually forcing the player of the year into a desperate chuck as the shot clock expired. Then, a few seconds later, Okafor rebounded Winslow's miss, putting home the basket that gave Duke a five-point lead with just 2:10 to play.
Which is not to say the other freshmen weren't great. Yes, Okafor had a game he'll work very hard to forget. Winslow was an off-and-on piece on the offensive end, though his defense, particularly when matched across from Hayes, was sturdy enough. But Jones, the most unflappable Blue Devil of the 2014-15 season -- frosh or otherwise -- was his typically lethal self down the stretch. An ice-cold, long, 2-point jumper fell at 7:04; with 4:06 to play, Jones used a high ball screen to get just free enough to bury a go-ahead 3. Then, with Duke ahead 63-58, Jones ran the same play back -- again burying a 3 that put the Blue Devils over the finish line against a Wisconsin team that stubbornly refused to wither until the final buzzer sounded. He wasn't perfect, making a questionable final-minute decision to attack on the fast break (and missing a layup) when Duke merely needed to run some clock. Even so, Monday was a showcase for the stars -- and the defense -- that brought its iconic coach his fifth national championship.