They were led by the freshmen, as they always would have been. And not just Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones, but Grayson Allen as well.
The kids are all right. And the old coach on the bench still has a new trick or two.
Duke’s grand experiment, a team built around one-and-done talent, not only produced a fifth national title for Mike Krzyzewski but one of the great championship games of all time, with 16 lead changes and both teams coming back from apparent extinction to rise again before Duke closed out a 68-63 win over Wisconsin on Monday.
When Jones buried a 3-pointer to put Duke up eight with 84 seconds to play, he turned to his family across the court from Duke’s bench and screamed. He knew.
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“This is why we came here!” Jones’ older brother Jadee screamed as time ran out and Tyus cried at center court.
There was no reason to lament the lack of the anticipated Duke-Kentucky matchup. There’s no way it could have measured up to what Duke and Wisconsin produced, one of the best national-championship games in recent memory
Just when it looked like Wisconsin had thoroughly taken control to open the second half, taking a nine-point lead, it was Duke’s forgotten fourth freshman, Allen, who took over the game, not Okafor or Winslow or Jones. Allen’s 3-pointer, steal, and-one and two free throws accounted for eight straight Duke points.
With Okafor on the bench in foul trouble, Allen and Jones carried Duke to the finish. And Okafor, who had a miserable game against Frank Kaminsky, came through with two key baskets at the end. Jones had 23 points, Allen 16, Winslow 11 and Okafor 10. The rest of Duke’s roster had eight.
“Freshman year,” Okafor said. “We did it. We did it.”
It was a game befitting the atmosphere of the entire weekend, from the national anthem sung Saturday by the athletes from the four schools to the bald eagle flying through the stadium during Monday’s anthem. One seat sat empty, Roy Williams’ seat in the first row of section 140, in honor of Bo Ryan’s late father Butch.
The rest were full of the swarming fans from first Kentucky and then Wisconsin, who turned the city from blue to red overnight, but by night’s end only Duke was celebrating. In Indianapolis. Again.
Duke’s fifth national championship team was so different from its predecessors. The only commonality they share is their coach.
This team will forever be linked with the other four, but those were so similar to each other, each the culmination of a long progression toward greatness. This team was conjured into existence with one purpose, and that purpose having been achieved, it will scatter to the winds.
Krzyzewski talked time and time again about living in this team’s “moment,” and that’s what this was: a moment, one single run at one single national title.
This moment, summoned into existence for this express purpose, never to be replicated. This moment, at an end, one way or another.
As Jones was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, the Duke students chanted “One more year.” Good luck with that.
In the same season when Krzyzewski won his 1,000th game, when he dismissed a player from his team for the first time in 35 years, he moved past Adolph Rupp with his fifth championship. Only John Wooden has more, but Krzyzewski has done it in very different eras of college basketball, spanning an entire generation, running a much longer road to get there in a tournament that has grown to 68 teams.
“We’ve done it once with this group,” Krzyzewski said. “That’s what it’s all about. Just this group.”
This was a triumph of talent, with three first-round NBA draft picks too much for Wisconsin to handle.
This was a triumph of timing, a one-shot, no-second-chances attempt to win a national title.
And this was a triumph of coaching, with Krzyzewski finally proving he could win with one-and-done players, in part because of his willingness to adapt some of his most precious tenets to accommodate them.
It was only five years ago Duke won a national title in this same building with a team that couldn’t have been more different. That team was veteran, experienced, solid, unflashy. This team was a supernova.
It burned brightly, and now, as its moment passes, it will not fade away quietly, its mission complete, not to be forgotten.
DeCock: email@example.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947