In the final game of his first – and likely last – college season, Duke center Jahlil Okafor saved his best for last, and was the player in the final 3 ½ minutes that Wisconsin most feared entering Monday night, the player that was the ACC's best this season.
It took awhile. It took a long while, in fact, to Okafor to assert himself in Duke's 68-63 victory – a win that gives the Blue Devils their fifth national championship, all under coach Mike Krzyzewski.
For the first 36 minutes or so Monday night, Frank Kaminsky, the Wisconsin 7-foot center who recently earned national player of the year honors, had badly outplayed Okafor. For the first 36 minutes, the anticipated duel between Okafor and Kaminsky – perhaps the nation's two best centers – never materialized.
During those first 36 minutes, Kaminsky did what he has all season while Okafor didn't. Hampered by foul trouble throughout, Okafor scored six points in the first 36 minutes – all in the first half.
Kaminsky, meanwhile, had scored 21 points and grabbed 11 rebounds. It looked for the longest time that it'd be a coronation to his brilliant but improbable collegiate career, which began with him averaging less than two points as a freshman and less than five as a sophomore.
And Kaminsky did win the statistical battle Monday night. He finished with more than twice the points as Okafor (10 points) and more than twice the rebounds (three).
Okafor, though, finished with something else: a national championship.
After sitting on the bench for nearly six minutes after he picked up his fourth foul, Okafor returned with three minutes, 22 seconds to play and immediately asserted himself. Duke went to him seconds after he reentered the game and Okafor made an aggressive move.
He backed down Kaminsky, spun to the basket and made a layup while Kaminsky grabbed his arm. Okafor missed the free throw, but his layup gave Duke a 61-58 lead.
Then, after a Wisconsin miss, Okafor scored again. He rebounded a missed layup from Justise Winslow, who had penetrated the middle of the Badgers' defense. Okafor corralled the miss and put it back up quickly, and Duke led 63-58.
In the span of about a minute, Okafor had put together his most productive stretch of the game – a stretch that defined the Blue Devils victory as much as any other. Before then, it had been a struggle.
After he scored that putback off Winslow's miss, though, Duke never led by less than three points. Okafor finished the game with those four fouls – the fifth time he'd finished a game with that many – and he finished, too, with perhaps the game's most significant points.