INDIANAPOLIS — With two of Duke’s star freshmen in foul trouble in the biggest game of the season, the Blue Devils found a championship-saving jolt from an unlikely source.
Hello, Grayson Allen. Welcome to the game’s biggest stage.
The fourth and often overlooked member of Duke’s heralded freshman class scored 16 points in Monday night’s NCAA championship game. That included a run of eight straight points for Duke — along with a huge burst of energy — that helped Duke get back in a game that was slipping away and beat Wisconsin 68-63 for the program’s fifth title.
“We got nine points down, we’re in foul trouble and a little bit disjointed,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “And Grayson put us on his back.”
Allen’s timely burst was desperately needed for Duke with star big man Jahlil Okafor and fellow freshman Justise Winslow battling foul trouble. And with Okafor sitting for long stretches of the second half, Allen saw major minutes in a small lineup for the Blue Devils (35-4).
Allen, a 6-foot-4 guard from Jacksonville, Florida, scored 10 points after halftime and finished 5-for-8 from the field along with a perfect 5-for-5 from the foul line in 21 minutes. Along the way, he provided some of the same hustle he did in Saturday night’s win against Michigan State in the Final Four, sprinting and diving for loose balls or penetrating hard into the paint — and just being a general pest — against a veteran Badgers team.
It was a heck of a coming out party, one that put Allen on the five-man all-Final Four tournament team after this one was over.
“Coach has told me all year to stay ready in practice, and those other seven guys have really given me confidence,” Allen said. “They’ve been supporting me all year. … I knew that I was capable of doing it just because of what they’ve been telling me all year.”
There’s no way Wisconsin could’ve seen Allen’s outburst coming, either.
Allen had played at least 20 minutes only twice and scored in double figures four times all year before Monday night. He was averaging just 4.0 points in 8.9 minutes per game coming in, and much of that production had come in an 18-point outing in the season-opening win against Presbyterian and a 27-point outburst in a rout of Wake Forest in February.
He had earned a bigger supporting role and more trust from Krzyzewski after the dismissal of Rasheed Sulaimon from the team in January, even though there were still plenty of games where he saw only spot minutes here and there.
Allen’s teammates, however, said they saw plenty of strong performances in practice, complete with that relentless energy and aggressive play that left him with a couple of big floorburns from diving on the court during the two games in Indianapolis.
Winslow went as far as to call Allen an expletive in describing his relentless play in practice. Maybe that’s why none of the Blue Devils in the celebratory locker room said they were surprised by what Allen did Monday night.
The Blue Devils trailed 48-39 when Allen started his personal spurt with a 3-pointer, followed by a driving basket for a three-point play and then two free throws. That got Duke back in the game, on the way to making Krzyzewski only the second coach to win five NCAA championships.
“Guys didn’t want to guard him out there,” Winslow said. “You saw that. He kept getting to the basket, kept getting big plays. So for a guy to do that … it just speaks volumes to the type of person he is.”
When it was over and Duke had cut down the nets down once again, players and coaches climbed onto the midcourt stage to watch “One Shining Moment” on the video boards in Lucas Oil Stadium.
Allen found himself standing beside Krzyzewski, the Hall of Fame coach’s net-wrapped left hand holding gently onto his left elbow.
It was fitting since it was hard to imagine how Duke could’ve won its biggest game of the season without him.