Grayson Allen collected an early personal trophy, a badge of honor he will take with him from Duke’s 81-61 win over Michigan State in the national semifinal.
A quarter-sized, open-wound floor burn, covered by a clear plastic bandage.
Allen beamed showing it off in the locker room, a result of a diving attempt to save the ball in the first half before it bounced out of play (he was unsuccessful). Allen went crashing into a courtside TV monitor, just a few inches away from taking out a media member on press row.
It was peak Duke—scrappy, tough and defense-first.
“It’s an emotional commitment,” Allen said of Duke’s rededication to defense, which has the Blue Devils playing in the national championship game. “We came in with being emotional on the offensive end, getting excited for each other. It’s really turned around to when we get a stop, it’s even more exciting than getting a dunk.”
In the 10 halves Duke has played in the NCAA Tournament, opponents are shooting 40.9 percent on 2-point shots. That’s down from 47.4 percent during ACC play. Opponents shot 39.9 percent from behind the arc against Duke in the regular season—including the Michigan State game, it’s now 26.9 percent.
“We keep getting better,” Mike Krzyzewski said. “I mean, when we go through our game plan, defense, guys are talking, giving instruction. When one guy's out, they're saying, Remember, you got to do this. They've been great.”
The game plan tonight was to take out Travis Trice, who was averaging 19.8 points per game in the NCAA Tournament, and to chase him and the rest of the Michigan State shooters off of the 3-point line. Duke largely succeeded—Michigan State finished 7-of-20 from 3-point range, and Quinn Cook locked down Trice to just 12 points before the free-throw parade started toward the end of the game.
But it took Duke about four minutes to settle in—in the meantime, Michigan State made five of its first seven shots, including a perfect 4-for-4 mark from 3. Tum Tum Nairn Jr. and Branden Dawson were slapping the floor, as it was all going right for Michigan State, owners of a 14-6 lead.
“That was like a slap in the face to us,” Matt Jones said of the Spartans' floor-slap. “We definitely talked about it during the game.”
And then it all turned cold for Michigan State
Duke limited the Spartans to just a 3-for-20 mark over the rest of the first half. Thanks to that air-tight defense, the Blue Devils turned an 8-point deficit into an 8-point lead in less than 12 minutes.
Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones were pressuring out so for in the backcourt that they were closer half court than the top of the arc. Jahlil Okafor, at one point, forced a trap on Denzel Valentine with Matt Jones, out on the perimeter, flawlessly switching off of a high ball screen. Valentine tried to throw a pass over Okafor—almost always a bad idea—and Okafor easily pluked the ball out of the air with his massive hands (the mitts that make a basketball look like a dodgeball).
That, right there, was a sight unimaginable in early January, when N.C. State and Miami ran high ball screen after high ball screen, luring Okafor out on the perimeter to make easy driving lanes for their guards. That two-game stretch forced deep soul searching by the Blue Devils coaching staff, and, with the clock ticking past 5 a.m., the solution was born: a 2-3 zone defense.
“That was a time in the year where you just had to look yourself in the mirror and really find yourself,” Jones said of the back-to-back losses. “It starts with the captains. They brought us together and really just kept the team together.”
That was the point in the year where Cook, after three years of priding himself on outscoring opponents, flipped his mindset to one aimed at shutting his man down. The Blue Devils have followed Cook’s lead all year—and that included his renewed focus on defense.
“He knew that would be contagious to everyone on the team,” Jones said of Cook.
The zone ended up being more of a temporary fix, as Duke has mainly played Krzyzewski’s preferred pressure man-to-man in the NCAA tournament. Cook’s pressure defense on the ball makes it easier for the defenders behind him, and post players like Marshall Plumlee and Jahlil Okafor have done a better job playing help defense behind him, allowing Cook to be even more aggressive up top. It’s a symbiotic relationship that has worked for Duke, leading the Blue Devils all the way to the national championship game.
After Duke went up by 17, thanks to an Okafor dunk, the five players on the floor bent over and gave it a slap. The Blue Devils could smell Michigan State starting to rot, and they didn’t let up.
It was, again, peak Duke, a throwback to the types of teams that hung many banners in Cameron Indoor Stadium. Monday night, these Blue Devils will get their chance to get theirs.