Duke smothers Michigan State with its suddenly tough defense

INDIANAPOLIS — The biggest reason Duke is one win away from Mike Krzyzewski’s fifth national championship isn’t Jahlil Okafor’s low-post scoring, Justise Winslow’s forays to the rim or Quinn Cook’s 3-point shooting.

Hard as it may be to believe, it’s defense that is fueling the Blue Devils.

A Duke team whose season-long weakness had been its inability to string together stops suddenly has improved dramatically in the NCAA tournament. The Blue Devils spotted Michigan State an early eight-point lead and then smothered the overmatched Spartans the rest of the night, rolling to an 81-61 victory in Saturday’s first national semifinal.

In the final 16 minutes of the first half and the first two minutes of the second, Duke outscored Michigan State 36-11, forced nine turnovers and held the Spartans to anemic 3-of-21 shooting. By the end of that stretch, the Blue Devils led by 17 points and could already start looking ahead to Monday’s title game against either fellow No. 1 seeds Wisconsin or Kentucky.

"A lot of people said we couldn't play defense," Duke guard Matt Jones said. "For the most part in the NCAA tournament, we've been a very good defensive team. Now we just have to do it one more time on Monday."

Duke’s massive improvement on defense is one of the NCAA tournament’s biggest surprises because the Blue Devils (34-4) had won in spite of an inability to get stops all season. They were vulnerable against dribble penetration. They were sloppy defending ball screens. Jahlil Okafor didn’t move well enough to contest shots on the perimeter, nor was he especially effective erasing shots around the rim.

Things got so bad at one point early in ACC play that Krzyzewski actually abandoned his trademark aggressive man-to-man and had the Blue Devils play zone for an entire game for the first time in his career.

Zone eventually became a change of pace for Duke rather than a permanent fix because the Blue Devils’ freshman stars eventually began to show progress. They had not allowed an opponent to score more than 0.89 points per possession in the NCAA tournament entering Saturday, remarkable considering South Region opponents Gonzaga and Utah boasted two of the nation’s most efficient offenses all season.

"We knew we had the tools and the togetherness to be a really good defensive team," forward Amile Jefferson said. "We had lapses during the season when our defense wasn't where we wanted it to be, but we've fixed it. Our coaches do an amazing job of scouting and giving us a really good game plan. With our defensive versatility on the perimeter and Jahlil Okafor in the middle, we're really good on defense right now."

What Duke did an especially good job of Saturday was forcing 14 turnovers with its aggressive ball pressure. The Blue Devils also defended ball screens very effectively, walling off the paint and forcing Michigan State star Travis Trice to the baseline instead.

Trice, who had carried the seventh-seeded Spartans to an unlikely Final Four by averaging 19.8 points per game in the NCAA tournament, finished with just 16 on Saturday, most of which came long after the game was already decided. Denzel Valentine led Michigan State with 22 points and Branden Dawson had 12, but the Spartans never closed to within single digits after halftime and endured a "Just go home chant" from Duke's student section with two minutes still to play.

Duke’s offense was as formidable as ever Saturday thanks in large part to its freshman one-two punch of Okafor and Justise Winslow. Okafor took advantage of Michigan State’s unwillingness to double team, overwhelming the Spartans’ undersized frontcourt on his way to 18 points on 7-of-11 shooting. Winslow attacked the rim without fear, adding 19 points in his Final Four debut.

Twice in the previous three years, Duke has suffered embarrassing losses in the opening round of the NCAA tournament, first to Lehigh in 2012 and then to Mercer last March. This year the Blue Devils are back in a familiar spot.

They'll be in the title game on Monday for the first time in five years playing for the national championship.

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!