The scene inside the Duke locker room after the Blue Devils smashed Michigan State 81-61 in a Final Four semifinal had to be joyous, but perhaps not as much as outside the locker-room doors.
There, Chukwudi “Chucky” Okafor and his brother, Emeka, were dancing and celebrating the victory and giving some reporters a hard time for some honor voting.
“Did you know Jahlil got only five AP player of the year votes?” Chucky Okafor said.
That’s first-place votes, and that is correct. The winner, Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky, received 58 first-place votes.
Point taken. Jahlil Okafor dominated the Spartans on Saturday with 18 points and six rebounds, including seven points in a 2-minute stretch in the first half that gave the Blue Devils a lead they would never return.
The amazing freshman Okafor scored in a variety of ways. He spun, dunked and banked, often starting his move palming the ball like it was an orange, and the Spartans had no answer. He wasn’t alone in his production, but he was the most artistic of the Blue Devils, who will face Kentucky or Wisconsin in the national championship game Monday.
Duke, 34-4, will be playing for its fifth NCAA title and third in Indianapolis. The Blue Devils’ most recent national championship occurred in the same building, when they defeated Butler in 2010.
The Devils caught the Spartans at 16-16 on Okafor’s three-point play, and Okafor’s follow slam on Justise Winslow’s miss at the basket handed the Devils their first lead of the game.
For his next bucket, Okafor rose and, Tim Duncan-like, banked in a 12-footer.
“Jahlil, he’s an elite player,” Michigan State forward Brandon Dawson said. “Every time he got the ball, he just made a great move. Everyone talked about what we could do to stop him. He established position in the post and made some great post moves.”
All of this was delivered in response to Michigan State’s blazing start.
For the first 5 minutes, Duke looked as if it would get run out of Lucas Oil Stadium. Michigan State made five of its first seven, including all four of its three-pointers — three by Denzel Valentine — and took a 14-6 lead.
“After the first 4 minutes we found out it was going to be a more difficult game than even we thought,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
Maybe Michigan State, 27-12, a seventh-seed that upset its way through the East Region, was due to miss a few anyway, but the offense was never the same after the first media timeout at 15:44. The Blue Devils tightened their defense, frustrating Michigan State shooters as the open looks disappeared.
“They started denying a little, but started forcing us to take bad shots,” Valentine said. “Next thing you know, they had a lead.”
Commercials came at a bad time for the Spartans. So did Duke’s defensive approach.
“It was fun to string some stops together,” Blue Devils guard Quinn Cook said. “Coach (Krzyzewski) always stresses that great defense leads to a great offense. It’s a habit we’ve developed, and it pays off for us.”
Duke gained momentum on the offensive end and was having success on the dribble drive, either having Okafor finish or the guards take to the basket.
“We saw seams we could take advantage of,” Cook said. “We have the freedom to make the right read at the right time. Guys played confidently out there.”
When Michigan State couldn’t get stops, it fouled. Duke was 12 of 16 on first-half free throws and led by 11 at the break.
When the Blue Devils scored the first six points in the second half, any Michigan State hopes of getting close were dashed. Duke has been dominating opponents in the tournament, winning games by 18-point average margin.
But Saturday Duke may have gone to even a higher level.
“The last 36 minutes, we played great basketball,” Krzyewski said. “That’s the best we’ve played in the tournament, and we’ve played really well in the tournament.”