Final Four approaching tip-off in Indianapolis
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Duke is one step away from its fifth national championship.
Justise Winslow had 19 points, Jahlil Okafor added 18 and the top-seeded Blue Devils beat up on Big Ten power Michigan State 81-61 in Saturday night's national semifinal.
Next up: The winner of unbeaten Kentucky and fellow top seed Wisconsin.
The seventh-seeded Spartans were considered the long shot in this Final Four of bluebloods, though nobody had counted them out with March maestro Tom Izzo on the sideline. But their magic wore off quickly against the coach Mike Krzyzewski's Blue Devils, who used their superior size, speed and some stingy perimeter defense to make the second half academic.
Duke led by double digits the entire final 20 minutes, allowing a fan base that has grown accustomed to being on college basketball's biggest stage plenty of time to celebrate.
Krzyzewski, who improved to 9-1 against Izzo, said earlier this week that he doesn't put much stock in history. But it's certainly on his side: The Blue Devils won national titles in 1991 and 2010, the last two times they played in a final in Indianapolis.
No wonder their fans started chanting ''Our house!'' in the final minute.
At the other end of the floor, many white-clad Michigan State fans spent the second half staring quietly at their feet. After victories over second-seeded Virginia, third-seeded Oklahoma and fourth-seeded Louisville, they were finally done in by a No. 1 seed.
Denzel Valentine scored 22 points to lead the Spartans. Travis Trice had 16.
Duke pulled away from Michigan State with a dominant start to the second half, leaving just one question: Will the Spartans have anybody left by the end?
The trio of guys they've been throwing at Blue Devils star Jahlil Okafor - Matt Costello, Branden Dawson and Gavin Schilling - all had four fouls with 9 minutes to go.
On top of that, point guard Travis Trice briefly slipped to the locker room after taking a shot to the - um, midsection. He returned to the floor a few minutes later.
Justise Winslow got off to a miserable first few minutes for Duke, but the freshman guard has been their best player ever since. He had 16 points on 5-for-7 shooting, and had a game-high eight rebounds at the under-8 media timeout.
The Blue Devils led 65-48 at that point.
Grayson Allen may not look like a slam dunk champion.
He proved why he is Saturday night.
Often overshadowed by the Blue Devils' more touted freshman, the 6-foot-4 guard followed up a missed 3-pointer in the second half against Michigan State with a massive tomahawk jam.
The explosion may have caught some fans off guard, but not those who follow the team closely. Allen won the American Family Insurance High School Slam Dunk Contest and the Beach Ball Classic Slam Dunk title before he joined the Blue Devils.
Oh, he also was the 2014 Powerade Jam Fest slam dunk champion, jumping over teammate Jahlil Okafor to clinch the title. He joined former Blue Devil recruits Ricky Price (1994) and Gerald Henderson (2006) in winning the coveted dunk award.
Duke is trying to make sure there's no second-half comeback this time.
After allowing Michigan State to make things interesting in their first meeting, the Blue Devils opened the second half of Saturday night's national semifinal by stepping on the gas.
Not only did they score the first six points to extend their lead to 42-25, they also brought any of their fans still sitting in a seat to their feet with some rim-rocking dunks. Jahlil Okafor provided one of them. Justise Winslow added another.
The Blue Devils have been able to drive to the basket at will, while the Spartans have still settled for outside jumpers. Their field-goal slump reached 3 for 22 spanning halftime before Travis Trice scored their first bucket of the second half with 18 minutes to go.
The second half of Duke-Michigan State is underway at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The Spartans will need to heat up from the field again to have any hope of a comeback. They finished the first half on a dreadful 3-for-20 shooting slump, with Branden Dawson going 2 for 8 and Travis Trice - one of the hottest players in the tournament and the East regional most outstanding player - just 2 for 6.
The Blue Devils figure to make things difficult for the Spartans, especially if they continue to hold onto the ball. They only turned it over four times in the first half.
One bright spot for Duke: Six points off the bench. That doesn't sound like much, but the Blue Devils have won games this season when getting nothing from their reserves.
It was Michigan State, the far deeper team, that got just two points from its backups.
Duke is 20 minutes away from playing for a title.
Behind another big first half from Jahlil Okafor and some poised play from their guards, the Blue Devils rallied from an early eight-point hole to take a 36-25 lead over Michigan State.
The winner gets Kentucky or Wisconsin for the NCAA championship Monday night.
The Spartans began the game by hitting five of their first seven shots, but finished just 8 of 27 from the field. And their one player was hot, Denzel Valentine, appeared to turn his ankle in the final minute of the first half.
He was checked by a trainer, hopped around a bit and returned a moment later.
Okafor finished with 10 points to lead the Blue Devils. Perhaps most importantly, the star freshman did it without committing a single foul.
The foul trouble belonged to the Spartans, who put Duke in the bonus with more than 9 minutes left in the first half. The result? The Blue Devils went 12 of 16 from the foul line, while the Spartans were just 4 for 9 from the stripe.
Michigan State is throwing waves of big men at Jahlil Okafor.
Perhaps the Spartans will run out?
Gavin Schilling and Matt Costello each had two fouls by the final media timeout in the first half, and they weren't exactly being effective slowing down Duke's star freshman anyway. Okafor was off to a 4-for-6 start from the field, with nine points and two boards.
The Spartans have a big advantage in depth, but they have very little size. Schilling and Costello stand just 6-foot-9, a full 2 inches shorter than Okafor. The next-tallest players on the team are 6-7 forwards Trevor Bohnhoff and Colby Wollenman.
No wonder the Blue Devils have been able to turn an early 14-6 deficit into a 29-20 lead.
Here come the Blue Devils.
After Michigan State raced out to an early eight-point lead, Duke punched back with a 14-2 run of its own to take the lead. Justise Winslow was the instigator, slashing to the basket as the Blue Devils tried to take advantage of their size in the paint.
All the driving also got Michigan State in foul trouble - the Blue Devils were in the bonus for the final 9-plus minutes of the second half.
The Spartans, meanwhile, began settling for jumpers. They wound up missing nine of 11 shots during a horrific stretch of offense, including an ugly airball by Branden Dawson and a 3-pointer that glanced off the side of the backboard by Tum Tum Nairn.
Winslow picked up his second foul with 8:42 left in the half, though. He took a seat on the bench, and that could prove pivotal. The Blue Devils have precious little depth.
Behind each basket in Lucas Oil Stadium are student sections, with a few hundred from each school. But with the floor raised, the folks in the back, even when they stand, have to watch most of the game on the video board above the floor.
Jahlil Okafor was dynamic in the first meeting between these two teams in November, but it was when he was on the bench in foul trouble that the Blue Devils gained some separation.
He wasn't in foul trouble when he subbed out in the first half Saturday night, but the move to junior Marshall Plumlee sparked Duke anyway. The Blue Devils forced three straight turnovers, and Justise Winslow's three-point play got them within 14-11 at the second media break.
It took a few possessions but Duke finally got Jahlil Okafor some touches and he produced a foul on Gaven Schilling, who at 6-foot-9 and 240 pounds, looks small next to the 6-11, 270-pound freshman, and an easy basket inside.
Shooting is usually an x-factor at the Final Four, where the backdrop of a massive football stadium tends to throw off the depth perception of teams.
So much for that.
Michigan State and Duke both blistered the nets over the first few minutes of Saturday night's semifinal opener. The Spartans were 5 for 7 from the field, including a 3-for-3 start from 3-point range by junior guard Denzel Valentine.
The Blue Devils made their first three shots, but were done in by a pair of turnovers by freshman guard Justise Winslow. The last of them turned into Valentine's third 3, a shot from the top of the key that nearly hopped out of the cylinder before settling back through.
The Spartans led 14-6 at the first media timeout.
Before the national anthem was sung, beautifully, by four student-athletes - one from each school - the public address announcer in the stadium said: ''In the spirit of solidarity and united as one community ...'
Duke and Michigan State are ready for their rematch - with a whole lot more at stake.
In one of the first games of the season, the two schools met just down the street at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in the Champions Classic. The Blue Devils won that game, 81-71.
Jahlil Okafor announced his presence in a big way that night against the Spartans. The freshman forward and presumptive No. 1 pick in June's NBA draft played 30 minutes, scoring 17 points on 8-for-10 shooting in a dominant performance in the paint.
Duke raced to a 10-point lead late in the first half. Michigan State made a big second-half run but was never able to take the lead. The Blue Devils shot 54 percent from the field, turning 13 turnovers into 24 points, much to the chagrin of Spartans coach Tom Izzo.
There were no surprises in the starting lineups for Saturday night's first semifinal.
Michigan State went with the quicker lineup it adjusted to after some early season struggles, which meant freshman Tum Tum Nairn joined senior Travis Trice and junior Denzel Valentine in the Spartans' backcourt. Gavin Shilling and Branden Dawson started at forward.
The Blue Devils are sticking with their three freshman phenoms - Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones - along with guards Quinn Coke and Matt Jones.
The NCAA brought out some big names for its Final Four music festival, including Rihanna and country music acts Lady Antebellum and Zac Brown Band headline Sunday.
As for the national anthem, the NCAA kept things focused on students-athletes.
With the help of Amy Thornburg, a local vocal coach, officials selected one from each of the participating schools. The impromptu quartet got together for practice Friday night, and will take the floor to sing the anthem before a packed house at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The singers: Michelle Dear, a soccer player from Michigan State; Vitto Brown, a basketball player from Wisconsin; Deion Williams, a football player from Duke; and Kennedy Collier, a member of the Kentucky women's soccer team.
Brown is a sophomore forward who has rarely played of late. But he nevertheless had to head back stage quickly to prepare for the Badgers' semifinal against Kentucky.
The festive atmosphere that built on the streets of Indianapolis made its way inside Lucas Oil Stadium, where Michigan State was preparing to face Duke and Wisconsin was meeting Kentucky in Saturday night's national semifinals.
As the NCAA likes to say, ''The road ends here.''
At the fan fest in in the massive convention center across the street from the stadium, the predominant color was red. Maybe Kentucky fans will catch up later, but Wisconsin supporters were winning the competition early.
This is the first time that Indianapolis has hosted the Final Four since 2010, when the Blue Devils knocked off upstart Butler to win coach Mike Krzyzewski's fourth national title.
Krzyzewski, by the way, has been wearing that title ring lately.
''Usually I don't wear a ring on my right fingers, but I did for the tournament,'' he said. ''Not for luck or anything, just a constant reminder of what it is. To come back here, again.''
Well, the Blue Devils are here. So is Big Blue Nation, chasing perfection. Thousands of Badgers fans. And the green and white of Michigan State, Wisconsin's Big Ten rival.
Let the games begin.