INDIANAPOLIS—Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones. Those were the three heralded names that garnered Duke's 2014 recruiting class the unofficial title of "best-ever" in the 40-year career of head coach Mike Krzyzewski.
Trailing Wisconsin 48-39 with 13:25 left in the national title game, it looked to be an uphill battle for the Blue Devils against the most efficient offense in the country. But then a freshman rose to the occasion to carry Duke up that hill—the one who attracted the least attention coming out of high school, and for most of the season.
Grayson Allen poured in 16 points—10 of them coming in the second half—to fuel a furious rally by Duke, which captured its fifth national championship in program history with a come-from-behind 68-63 win against the Badgers.
"I dreamed about [winning a national title] since I think about eighth grade. I saw them win 2010, that national championship against Butler," Allen said. "It doesn't feel real right now, to be honest with you."
Allen did not play in the Blue Devils' 80-70 win at Wisconsin Dec. 3, but spent the regular season earning more and more playing time, particularly after the roster shrunk to eight scholarship players. The entire time, he had a chip on his shoulder.
At Duke's first open locker room availability of the season back in September, Allen was asked whether he felt overlooked in high school, and as the fourth member of the team's star-studded freshman class.
“I think that’s something I can only prove with my play this season, whether I’m proving people right or wrong," he said. "It’s something that I’ve always dealt with, so I think coming in here is just another step for me to keep proving myself.”
Allen proved himself on the game's biggest stage Monday night, attacking the basket relentlessly to earn trips to the free-throw line and put Wisconsin—which had committed just two fouls in the first half—into the bonus with 11:43 left in the game.
"Grayson put us on his back," Krzyzewski said. "We went to him kind of exclusively because of his ability to drive and penetrate. And he did—he finished."
The Badgers had scored on nine of their first 11 possessions in the second half, but a single-handed 42-second spurt by Allen helped grab back a little bit of the momentum for Duke. After a pair of Frank Kaminsky free throws, the Jacksonville, Fla., native drained a triple to trim the deficit to six. On the next defensive possession, Allen went after a loose ball, dove to the ground and managed to knock the ball off Wisconsin point guard Traevon Jackson to give his team an extra possession.
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Senior guard Quinn Cook missed a layup on that possession, but junior forward Amile Jefferson corralled the offensive rebound and the ball swung to Allen, who drove down the lane and muscled a shot up and in while drawing contact from Wisconsin swingman Sam Dekker. The free throw would fall for Allen—he was a perfect 5-of-5 on the night—and suddenly the Badger lead was down to three.
"He’s been that way for forever with our group. The world just hasn’t seen it yet, and tonight they did," Jefferson said. "We all knew that his moment was going to come—we didn’t know when it was, but we knew that he was going to have it. He was huge for us tonight."
There had been flashes of the freshman's potential earlier in the year, like his 27-point outburst against Wake Forest March 5. But Monday night, fans finally got to see the aggressive, attacking player that his teammates have had to deal with all year in practice.
"Guys just hate guarding him because he’s always going to the basket, attacking hard, throwing elbows, things like that," Winslow said. "I think just the dog in him came out tonight when we needed him most. It was great to see him perform like that."
To say Duke has been freshman-reliant this season would be an understatement. Allen, Winslow, Jones and Okafor comprise half of the Duke rotation and account for 57.1 percent of the team's scoring. The quartet carried the team for much of the season, combining with the reliable 3-point shooting of Cook to make the Blue Devils an offensive juggernaut.
But Monday night, the Blue Devils' dependence on its freshmen reached hyperbolic proportions.
Jones dropped a game-high 23 points—19 coming in the second half—and Okafor and Winslow combined to add 21 despite both being bogged down with foul trouble. Together with Allen's 16, the freshmen totaled 60 of Duke's 68 points, and all 37 points that the Blue Devils scored after halftime.
"They've been making plays for us all year. It's great that it paid off in the biggest game of everybody's lives," said Cook, who accounted for six of the remaining eight Duke points. "For them to perform like that on the stage like this says a lot about those guys' confidence. I'm just thankful that they came to Duke."
After Allen got the Blue Devils back within striking distance, Jones brought his team home down the stretch, as he has so many times this season. The Apple Valley, Minn., native scored eight of the final 12 Blue Devil points, including a 3-pointer while falling down with 4:08 remaining that gave Duke the lead for good and another trey with 1:24 left that put the Blue Devils ahead by eight and effectively locked up the national title.
The other four points in that run were scored by Okafor, who committed to Duke to play alongside Jones and shook off the cobwebs from six minutes on the bench with four fouls to register two huge baskets in crunch -time.
As freshmen playing in front of a crowd of more than 71,000, a nine-point deficit could have been overwhelming. But a group that came to Durham already mature and became battle-tested with big road wins throughout the season was not fazed.
"We never got down [on ourselves] and I think that was big. We knew we had been down earlier in the season and made comebacks, so we knew we were still in the game," Allen said. "Coach was preaching one stop at a time. We knew it wasn’t going to be a big play, it was going to be one possession at a time and we kept getting stops. Tyus made huge huge plays for us...and we came out on top."