Two star freshmen, a solid senior and some of the trademark defense Duke has long been known for have the Blue Devils back in the national championship game.
And in Indianapolis, no less.
Justise Winslow scored 19 points, fellow freshman Jahlil Okafor added 18 and senior Quinn Cook had 17 to lead top-seeded Duke to an 81-61 victory over Michigan State on Saturday and into yet another title game in the city known for a 500-mile auto race.
The Blue Devils won it all in Indianapolis in 1991, their first under Mike Krzyzewski. The winningest men’s Division I coach, who has a 9-3 record in national semifinal games, led them to their fourth and most recent title in 2010.
“The city’s great, and even if we didn’t win tonight the city would still be great and the venue would be great,” Krzyzewski said. “This team, though, deserved to be in it. So it makes it even better. They’ve been so good in this tournament and the stage has not been too big for them.”
The start against Michigan State didn’t look too promising for a trip to Monday night’s title game. The Spartans were ahead 14-6 just 4 minutes into the game, making five of their first seven shots and the first four they took from beyond the 3-point line.
Things changed and in a hurry.
“After the first four minutes, we were a different team. We played great basketball tonight, especially on the defensive end,” Krzyzewski said.
Defensively, it was a team effort, just the way Krzyzewski has stressed for his 35 seasons at Duke. What had been wide open 3-pointers early for Michigan State became contested shots and when the Blue Devils started getting up and into the Spartans, the points were suddenly tough to come by.
“They did a good job of taking me away,” said Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine, who had nine of his 22 points in that opening run, including three 3-pointers. “I got hot, and they started denying a little bit and started forcing us to take bad shots and the next thing you know they had the lead.”
The two Duke freshmen put up some impressive stats in their first Final Four game. Winslow, who played through some early foul trouble, had nine rebounds and was 5 for 7 from the field, while Okafor grabbed six rebounds and was 7 for 11 from the field.
“I don’t think we started the game out with the intensity we needed,” Cook said. “When we got down early Coach got on us and the last 36 minutes we played one of our better games. It’s definitely hard out there, but we just strung some stops together and great defense led to great offense.”
Valentine had 11 rebounds for the Spartans (27-12) while Travis Trice added 16 points.
A win on Monday night against either Kentucky or Wisconsin would mean a fifth national championship for Krzyzewski, breaking a tie with Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp and leaving him behind only John Wooden, who won 10 at UCLA.
“It’s an amazing thing, I mean, just to be in the Final Four, but to play on Monday night is the ultimate honor,” Krzyzewski said. “I hope our guys get their rest and we can get the same type of effort we got tonight.
“Now they’ve got a chance to play for a national championship, and damn, damn how great is that?”
Cook was already thinking of Monday night.
“Dreams come true, you know,” he said. “Dreams come true.”
The Blue Devils have won 17 of 18 with the only loss to Notre Dame in the semifinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.
Michigan State shot 40 percent from the field (22 of 55) for the game but the Spartans were just 8 of 27 (29.6 percent) in the first half.
The loss dropped Michigan State coach Tom Izzo to 3-4 in national semifinal games.
Seventh-seeded Michigan State was the only non-No. 1 team in the Final Four. In the four NCAA Tournament games, the Spartans were allowing 61.2 points per game on 33.9 percent shooting. Duke had 61 points — and a 20-point lead — with just under 10 minutes to play.
“I feel bad because I didn’t think people got to see the team that won 12 out of 15 games,” Izzo said. “So give Duke credit and give our team credit for getting someplace most people didn’t think we could go.”