One Shared Moment: Okafor, Jones turn friendship into national title
INDIANAPOLIS—They were always more than a package deal. The wavelength that Tyus Jones and Jahlil Okafor share is such that, on the eve of Monday's national title game, even though they were staying in separate rooms at Duke's hotel, they were doing the same thing, unbeknownst to each other. They were searching YouTube for One Shining Moment reels from the past, trying to tap into the emotions of old champions and heroes. Okafor watched 2014, with UConn, and 2012, with Kentucky, and 2008, with the Kansas-Memphis epic and Stephen Curry's earlier-round magic. For Jones it was a reminder of all the years he'd spent building up to this day. "You grow up watching the tournament," he said. "You just dream ..."
He and Okafor had grown up together. As children of the elite basketball circuit, they had met in the third grade at AAU nationals in Orlando, Fla., Okafor already a hulking giant out of Fort Smith, Ark., and later Chicago, and Jones, a runt of a point guard from Apple Valley, Minn., the MVP of the whole tournament. As roommates at a USA Basketball development camp in Colorado Springs in the fall of their ninth grade year, they hatched a plan. "We were going to go to college together," Jones says, "and we were going to win a national championship."
These are things that kids say to each other on the basketball circuit, and then drift apart as recruiting intensifies, and situations change. Especially when you play for different high schools in different states, and when you're the No. 1-ranked point guard and No. 1-ranked center in your class. But Jones and Okafor kept connecting, winning medals in international youth competitions for Team USA, and on Nov. 15, 2013, they committed to Duke in separate but coordinated press conferences within minutes of each other.
They were a 420-mile drive apart when they committed. When the buzzer sounded on Monday night at Lucas Oil Stadium, the score Duke 68, Wisconsin 63, clinching the fifth national title in Blue Devils history, Jones and Okafor were separated by a matter of 50 feet. Their wavelength was such that Jones began sprinting toward halfcourt once he had defended out the Badgers' final possession, and Okafor leapt off the bench, where he'd been for the final 1:05. They met in an embrace near the center circle. They were always more than a package deal—they are best friends—and so the hug turned into Okafor tackling Jones to the floor. The 6'11", 270-pounder smothered the 6'1", 190-pounder and told him, "I love you. This is what we dreamed of."
It was a dream that seemed too perfect to come true, and then it did. The only deviation from their script was that on the biggest stage, Jones did not play the role he'd assumed for much of Duke's 35-4 season—as the primary feeder of his All-America center. Instead he became Tyus Stones, the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player and perhaps the most clutch freshman scoring point guard in NCAA tournament history. With Okafor in foul trouble, finishing with just 10 points, and second-leading scorer Quinn Cook adding just six, Jones had to step up with 23 points—including 19 in the second half—to bring the title home. Along with fellow freshman Grayson Allen, who added 16 points and keyed a second-half comeback from a nine-point deficit, Jones rescued the Blue Devils. And yet, the Okafor tackle was the most pressure Jones felt all night.
Two hours before Monday's tipoff, at 7:17 p.m., Jones received a text message from his older brother and trainer, Jadee.
You on this stage is like a fish in water, Jadee wrote. You didn't just work to be here, you were made for this. … Go do your thing.
What Jones wrote back was: Thanks Jadee. I will. I got u.
Like a fish in water, Jones was always in his element in big games. In his first true road game as a Duke freshman, he scored 22 points in the Blue Devils' win at Wisconsin in November. And when they knocked off 19-0 Virginia in Charlottesville on Jan. 31, it was Jones who hit the biggest three, a shot that spawned the name Tyus Stones, which started on Twitter and then made its way into the locker room. Even Okafor started to use it in place of his original nickname for Jones, T-Raw.
Jones scored just four points in the first half on Monday, in front of a crowd that reminded Jadee of the Kohl Center in Madison—red and rowdy, with small pockets of blue. The Blue Devils and Badgers went into halftime tied 31-31, with neither of the nation's top two offenses (Wisconsin was ranked No. 1 in efficiency, Duke No. 2) having hit its stride. But Wisconsin, similar to its 16-points-in-eight-possessions surge out of halftime against undefeated Kentucky on Saturday, roared into the second half with 17 points on its first 10 possessions. It was a stretch that put the Badgers up nine, at 48-39, against a Duke team that had won its first five NCAA tournament games by 17.6 points. Had it not been for six Jones points in that time—four on free throws, another on a driving layup—the game might've gotten completely out of hand.
It was here that an unlikely freshman co-star emerged in Duke's backcourt: backup shooting guard Grayson Allen, who played a grand total of zero minutes in the first meeting with Wisconsin, only found a place in Duke's rotation after the early-February dismissal of guard Rasheed Sulaimon, and was more famous on Twitter for looking like a child version of Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz than for scoring points. But Allen, as coach Mike Krzyzewski said the day prior to the game, was Duke's best player in one category: "driving the ball."
Allen, even if he doesn't look it, is also the Blue Devils' biggest bulldog, or a--hole, as Coach K sometimes calls him in practice. It was Allen's bullishness—hitting a three, creating a steal, making an and-one layup, and then two more free throws in a 69-second span from 12:52 to 11:43—that pulled Duke back in the game.
Afterwards, Krzyzewski did not refer to Allen with the a-word. Coach K merely called him "spectacular."
While Allen pulled the Blue Devils away from the brink, it was Jones—and a smaller contribution from Okafor—who carried them home. In a rare Freshman Moment with 9:18 left, Okafor committed his fourth foul by reaching in on the center who beat him out for national player of the year awards, Frank Kaminsky. With his best friend relegated to the bench, Jones had no choice but to look for his shot, and he came off a pick-and-roll with Amile Jefferson to hit a two-point jumper that tied the game at 54-54.
With 4:08 left, Jones came off another screen to knock down a three that gave Duke its first lead of the second half, at 59-58. Krzyzewski said Jones was "magical with the high ballscreen," which became the Blue Devils' go-to offensive option until Okafor was re-inserted in the game at the 3:22 mark. He'd been held out due to fouls, and also because Jefferson was doing a better job of defending Kaminsky, who finished with 21 points and 12 rebounds. But assistant coach Jon Scheyer, who helped Duke win its 2010 national title in Indy as an All-ACC shooting guard and was sitting next to Okafor on the bench, kept telling him, "You're going to come in and win this game for us."
Eight seconds after Okafor subbed into the game, he was fed the ball on the blocks, and scored on a spinning move after Kaminsky fouled him by raking across his wrists. Although Okafor missed the free throw, the bucket put Duke up 61-58. Okafor successfully defended Kaminsky into an airball in the post on the Badgers' next possession, leading to what was essentially a shot-clock-violation turnover. And on the ensuing trip down the floor, Okafor came up with a monster offensive board-and-putback combo over Kaminsky that gave the Blue Devils a 63-58 lead.
Okafor had the second-half cameo that allowed for breathing room in the final two minutes, but he did not, as Scheyer predicted, win the game for Duke. It was Tyus Stones who put the dagger in Wisconsin, by hitting another three-pointer off a ballscreen with 1:24 left, letting out a primal scream as he ran back on defense, and then icing the game with a pair of free throws in the final minute. Duke's freshmen—Jones, Okafor, Allen and Justise Winslow—scored all 37 of its points in the second half to knock off the team that had knocked off indomitable Kentucky.
Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said on Friday that umpteen people, including Badgers' women's hockey coach Mark Johnson, who played on the 1980 Miracle on Ice team, had reminded him that the U.S., after upsetting the Soviet Union in the semifinals, still had to beat Finland in the gold-medal game. Here in Indy, the best game happened on Saturday, when Wisconsin halted Kentucky's run at history, but the best team was Duke. In this version, Finland won gold.
Okafor's larger-than-life father, Chucky, was sitting in the front row of the stands behind Duke's bench, wearing a T-shirt that was custom-painted with Jahlil's face and a crown atop his head. During the postgame celebration, Chucky was asked whether he panicked when Jahlil went out with his fourth foul, and Duke was trailing by a scary margin.
"I didn't panic at all," Chucky said, and then paused for effect, before saying "S---!" and bursting out laughing. He had panicked for a time, until he remembered that they had Tyus Jones.
"Tyus Jones is the best point guard in college basketball, hands down!" Chucky yelled. "This is the best basketball team in college basketball, hands down!"
Jones's father, Robert, was on the opposite side of the court, taking it all in. His wife, Debbie, had become pregnant with Tyus in 1995, and when he was born in May 1996, they named him after the point guard whose cold-blooded miracle-of-a-coast-to-coast layup had kept UCLA alive during its last national-title run: Tyus Edney. Robert would take Jones, as a middle-schooler, to play with adults at local YMCAs, where "he was like a little grown-up," and he was never flustered.
Jones had long believed, with some certainty, that he and Okafor could win a national title together 20 years after Edney's. And well before that, Jones had believed he could win every tournament he played in, dating back to Gus Macker 3-on-3 events when he was barely above five feet tall. "He was taking these trophies home every summer," Robert said, "and I'm like, this doesn't happen every time, son."
Life does not play out so flawlessly. No one makes an out-of-state best friend in ninth grade, vows to win a national championship together in college, makes good on that vow in their first year in college, and then gets to lay on the court in front of 71,149 people on the season's final Monday, embracing that best friend under a shower of streamers and confetti. Unless, that is, you're Tyus Jones and Jahlil Okafor, and you go to play together for Duke. Then it really does happen.