(1) Duke 68, (1) Wisconsin 63
Near the third-to-last TV timeout of the game, the Badgers led by nine: a title within reach. The crowd roared like a game at the Kohl Center with the Hawkeyes or Illini or Wolverines in town. A December defeat against Duke seemed ready to be avenged.
But first, the prologue.
There's an arrhythmic rhythm to it all. The shots weren't falling early: Duke and Wisconsin got out of the gates to a combined 3-for-9 start from the field.
With every game, there's a feeling out period: what are you trying to do, how will you react to me, should we slow down, should we speed up, is that set working, should we play this lineup against that lineup.
But that could be set aside, a product of nerves, the stage, the fantastic zipping of electrons back and forth, up and down the court.
Once the nerves settled, and the initial roar dulled only slightly into a microwave background of waiting-to-be-released hysteria, the Badgers started to struggle. Despite a 3-for-6 start from three, the Badgers were 3-for-12 from inside the arc.
Early returns indicated that the Badgers would have to shoot their way into a more comfortable offensive setting, one in which Duke's defensive presences would have to extend up closer to the arc.
Despite that, UW trailed just 23-17 with 6:45 to play in the first half. But they needed something, having gone on a four-plus minute field goal drought.
Then, a Sam Dekker putback gave them life. Frank Kaminsky swiped a ball in the low post at the other end, allowing Traevon Jackson to go coast-to-coast for two.
Kaminsky converted an and-1 that made the arena boom like the Kohl Center. Justise Winslow then converted a big two for Duke, ending what had been a 7-0 run for Bo Ryan's squad, but perhaps the biggest development in this stretch was Okafor picking up a second foul with just under five minutes left in the half (Winslow also had two fouls at this point).
The Blue Devils thus went to the 2-3, which the Badgers summarily beat with ease, a Dekker layup good for his seventh and eighth points of the half.
Oddly, the Badgers, perhaps unjustifiably not known for their offensive rebounding prowess -- instead known as a "get back and play defense" team -- dominated on the boards, snagging eight offensive boards to Duke two at one point late in the first half.
Duke gambled late, sitting both Okafor and Winslow -- Wisconsin couldn't make them pay, and the two heavyweights headed to the locker rooms, tied at 31.
This time, the Badgers didn't start slow. Instead, they hit their first three field goal attempts, jumping out to an early 5-point lead. For Duke, it didn't help that Okafor had some trouble finishing around the basket. Despite a couple thunderous dunks early, the freshman from Chicago missed a few bunnies in traffic, key misses for a Duke team looking to stay with the hyperefficient Badgers.
Making matters worse for Okafor, he picked up his third foul at the 16:50 mark on a strong Kaminsky take to the basket, spinning and spinning like a top that won't stop.
The Badgers didn't stop there, and the mostly UW-partisan crowd joined them.
Bronson Koenig awoke in the second half, scoring nine points in the first six minutes, helping the Badgers up their lead to nine.
Duke looked punch drunk -- discombobulated, unsteady, not to mention without Winslow or Okafor on the floor.
That didn't last for long. Grayson Allen buried a triple, then scored on a traditional three-point play on a fearless drive to the rim, cutting UW's lead to three. Forget Okafor, Winslow, Jones and Cook: how about the freshman from Jacksonville?
Fortunately for the Badgers, they have the luxury of a big man in Nigel Hayes, who began his Wisconsin career without a three-point shot, and this year become not just an okay three-point shooter, but a very good one (38 percent). He buried one, his third of three attempts, to push the lead back to six with 11:43 to play.
On the not so bright side for the Badgers, Duke entered the bonus with over 11 minutes to play, after hardly fouling at all in the first half. Duke attempted four free throws in the first half -- by the under-8 TV timeout, they'd attempted 11 in the second half.
Duke cut the deficit to one, 51-50, finally bringing Okafor back into the fold.
But, just like that, back to the bench he went. Less than a minute into his return, he picked up his fourth, once again trying to check and spinning Kaminsky.
A theme all night, the Badgers had trouble taking advantage of mismatches. With Duke's Tyus Jones on Duje Dukan, Jones was able to draw a charge call (whether it was the right call is another discussion).
The two teams slogged their way through an ugly couple of minutes of basketball. Foul, missed jumper, foul. Foul foul foul.
Two fighters, tired, grabbing, clutching for respite.
Then they started swinging.
The Badgers went to the Player of the Year, Kaminsky, who finished for two. At the other end, Jones buried a cold-blooded trey to give the lead back to Duke, 59-58, the 16th lead change of the contest.
The TV timeout was welcomed like the end-of-round bell. Clang. Assistants buzzing, offering bits of wisdom that were almost as much emotional in their content as they were practical.
With 3:22 to play, what else can you say? Hit them, don't get hit. Survive, play by play. There are no loping knockouts now, just survival.
Quiet for so long, Okafor went to work against Kaminsky in the post, giving him a spin move of his own. Despite Kaminsky's best bear hug, the Lisle, Ill., native couldn't stop his fellow Illinoisan from scoring his first bucket in four score and seven years.
After a big Duke stop, Okafor collected an offensive rebound and scored to put Duke up five. Koenig's acrobatic layup attempt fell off the mark at the other end. Despite a video review, and the ball appearing to go off a Blue Devil, Duke got the ball.
The Badgers were reeling, needing a stop. They didn't get it.
Tyus Jones, again, buried a three from the top. Wisconsin fell, a thud, followed by eight fast seconds.
They got up, and Kaminsky buried a three to keep them alive. Duke missed an ill-advised run-out attempt at the rim, and Koenig made them pay, delivering a no-look pass to Hayes, who slammed one home, cutting the deficit to three with 50 seconds to play.
The Badgers fouled, and Jones, the best free throw shooter in the ACC, buried two. Koenig couldn't convert a tough jumper attempt, all but ending things for the Badgers.
The confetti rained down: Duke 68, Wisconsin 63.
Bo Ryan's squad led by nine with 13:23 to play, but a combination of Tyus Jones, some late-game heroics from Okafor -- a game that was far from his best -- and the Badgers oddly playing a little too much one-on-one basketball instead of the team ball the program has been built on, all conspired to down the Badgers on a night when their first national title since 1941 seemed within their grasp.
Much will be said about the foul disparity from the first half to the second, or the decision to give Duke the ball late despite it appearing to go off the Blue Devils out of bounds.
But those points, while possibly valid, detract from what was a great game and a fitting cap to an exciting tournament and season.
With the victory, the first-seeded Blue Devils secured their fifth NCAA title, while the Badgers fell for the second year in the Final Four, this time on the doorstep of a title.
When things looked bleak for Duke, Grayson Allen -- not Okafor or Jones or Cook -- brought them from the brink. If you're looking for a Spike Albrecht, he's it, albeit a great deal more heralded out of high school than Albrecht was when he went off against Louisville two years ago.
As for Wisconsin, the loss caps another tremendous season for the Badgers, the second year in a fascinating reinvention experiment in Wisconsin basketball. The Badgers of last year and this year have been almost unrecognizable from the UW teams of previous years -- these teams combined the same old elements of turnover-averse, efficient basketball, this time doing it with multiple NBA talents and a strong supporting cast that could run when necessary and slow you down whenever things were going well, which was most of the time for the Badgers. Wisconsin finishes the season with 31 wins to just four losses, two of those against Duke, one that will be remembered and felt far more than the other.
And so the old season comes to a close. Time heals all wounds, they say -- but it doesn't heal all of them. For the players coming back, whether in Madison or East Lansing or Tuscon or Spokane or South Bend or Lexington, in Louisville or Ames or Charlottesville or Washington D.C. or Philadelphia, time will do nothing but allow it all to boil quietly, bubbling over intermittently and subsiding, a continual unbelief of the reality of defeat.
With that feeling, those players enter the offseason.
But there is no offseason. The season begins now.