Unlikely freshmen carry Duke to its fifth national title

The Dagger

INDIANAPOLIS — Their deficit had ballooned to nine early in the second half. Their star player was saddled with foul trouble. Their ears were ringing from the roars of the red-clad pro-Wisconsin crowd.

This could have been the point in Monday’s national title game when the enormity of the situation swallowed Duke’s freshmen whole. Instead it proved to be their finest moment.

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Duke's Grayson Allen drives to the basket ahead of Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky. (AP)
Duke's Grayson Allen drives to the basket ahead of Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky. (AP)

Duke’s four freshmen combined to score all of the team's 37 second-half points, including 29 in the game's final 13 minutes, as the Blue Devils rallied to claim Mike Krzyzewski’s fifth national title with a 68-63 win over fellow No. 1 seed Wisconsin at Lucas Oil Stadium. And while stars Justise Winslow and Jahlil Okafor played a part in the comeback, it was two other freshmen who carried Duke down the stretch.

Twenty-three of the combined 39 points Duke guards Grayson Allen and Tyus Jones scored Monday night came during those final 13 minutes.

"We were dead in the water," Krzyzewski said. "We were nine points down, and Grayson put us on his back. And once he got us in striking distance, we just said, 'Tyus, run high ball screen, and be you.' That’s great coaching, I guess."

Allen, the phenomenally talented guard who had spent most of the season on the edge of the rotation, delivered a spark when Duke needed it most, scoring the first eight points of his team's rally to get the Blue Devils back in striking distance.

"You know, to be in the position where you're coming off the bench, and these guys still support me and put confidence in me, I knew I was capable of doing it just because of what they've been telling me all year," Allen said.

Jones, the steady point guard who has come through in big moments all season, delivered a go-ahead top-of-the-key 3-pointer with 4:08 to go and a game-clinching three that stretched Duke's lead to eight a few minutes later.

"There's never been a moment when they doubted me," Jones said of his teammates and the coaching staff. "They trusted me to make a play and that's the biggest thing about this team is we never let one another down."

Duke players celebrate after the NCAA Final Four college basketball tournament championship game. (AP)
Duke players celebrate after the NCAA Final Four college basketball tournament championship game. (AP)

It was fitting that freshmen played such a huge role in Duke's first title since 2010 because it was two of them that put the Blue Devils on a path to this championship four years ago. Jones and Okafor returned home from a two-week stint as USA Basketball teammates convinced teaming up would be their best chance to win a national championship in college because of how well they worked together on the floor and how quickly they bonded off it.

Okafor and Jones officially visited Duke in October 2013, jointly committed on national TV a month later and persuaded fellow elite recruit Winslow to follow suit soon afterward. When Duke’s 2014-15 season ended with a stunning opening-round NCAA tournament loss to 14th-seeded Mercer, Jones famously texted Krzyzewski to promise the Blue Devils would not go home early again the following year.

It couldn’t have been easy for Duke’s veterans to cede shots or playing time to a bunch of freshmen, but the returning Blue Devils handled it with unselfishness and grace. Lone returning senior Quinn Cook, in particular, set the tone for the season when he surrendered the starting point guard job he’d held the previous years to Jones and moved off ball without complaint.

"I love being a part of this program. It's been the best four years of my life, a true blessing, and dreams come true," Cook said. "We worked hard, we believed we could do it, and had faith.

"Coach K just helps everybody. He wasn't focused on getting his fifth championship; he was focused on getting our first. We are all blessed to be part of this Duke program."

Early in the second half, Duke looked doomed. Wisconsin turned a 31-31 halftime score into an early five-point lead after three quick scores and extended the margin to 48-39 before the Blue Devils made their huge surge.

Wisconsin players react during the second half of Monday's loss. (AP)
Wisconsin players react during the second half of Monday's loss. (AP)

"We just didn't get it done offensively," Badgers guard Josh Gasser said. "We fouled too much the second half. They were just driving it hard."

Perhaps most significantly, Wisconsin failed to fully capitalize on the foul trouble of Duke star Jahlil Okafor. The center, who finished with 10 points on 5-of-9 shooting, picked up two fouls in the first half and had to sit down with 9:18 remaining in the game after collecting his fourth. However, the Badgers went more than four minutes before scoring again, tying the score at 56-56.

Okafor went back in the game with 3:22 left and scored two buckets to help the Blue Devils put Wisconsin away.

"Okafor had a lot of rest because of the foul trouble," Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. "Those two plays that he made on the potential and-one and also on the other basket that he had, I mean, he exerted his will, his influence, and got it done."

And subsequently, so did Duke.

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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!

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