By Scott Phillips / NBC News
INDIANAPOLIS — Michigan State took the floor with a ton of confidence during Saturday’s national semifinal against Duke. The Spartans scored 14 points on 5-for-7 shooting in the game’s opening 3:41 and began slapping the floor on defense in a charged-up display of early emotion.
Michigan State learned the hard way that you shouldn’t slap the floor — a Duke trademark — against Duke in the Final Four.
The Blue Devils’ improved defense in the 2015 NCAA Tournament continued in the Final Four as they slowed down the Michigan State offense and ran past the Spartans for an easy 81-61 win to advance to Monday night’s national championship game.
Freshman wing Justise Winslow continued his strong stretch in the NCAA tournament with 19 points and nine rebounds while freshman center Jahlil Okafor added 18 points. Winslow’s dunk with 15:56 left in the second half gave Duke a 48-31 cushion. The entire Blue Devil lineup slapped the floor during the ensuing defensive possession and the Duke faithful rose to their feet.
The game’s first punch was landed by Michigan State; the game’s final (floor) slap was delivered by Duke.
After the hot Michigan State start, Duke’s defense held the Spartans to only three field goals over the last 16:19 of the first half as Duke jumped out to a 36-25 halftime lead and never felt threatened in second half.
“I thought we tried to work ourselves into the game early and they came out and punched us right in the mouth,” Duke senior guard Quinn Cook said. “But we withstood their run and we made a run of our own.”
Duke (34-4) scored the first six points of the second half to push its lead to 42-25 and the second-half lead grew as large as 20 points.
“The last 36 minutes we played great basketball. That’s the best basketball we’ve played in the NCAA tournament. And we’ve played really well in the tournament,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
Senior guard Quinn Cook added 17 points for the Blue Devils as Duke shot 52 percent (26-for-50) from the field for the game.
The Duke defense during the regular season could be porous on the perimeter and the Blue Devils often had trouble defending high ball screens. Duke’s defense has been a different animal in the NCAA tournament. By going with a smaller starting lineup and putting Winslow at the four in the second half of the season, it enabled Duke to switch every matchup 1-through-4 against Michigan State’s offense. The switches and improved Blue Devil ball-screen defense neutralized the Spartans’ ability to attack the basket and the Michigan State offense was largely ineffective after the opening flurry.
Changing defensive looks by including some full-court pressure, and an occasional zone look, also aided Duke’s defense. Sometimes the Blue Devil defense would face-guard Michigan State offensive threats like senior guard Travis Trice and junior wing Denzel Valentine the length of the floor to make them work to receive the ball.
“Week by week, I felt that guys were making tremendous strides on the defensive level,” Cook said. “It was fun to string some stops together. Coach always stresses great defense leads to great offense. It’s a habit that we’ve developed, which guys are liking. It’s been paying off for us.”
Michigan State (27-12) was led by 22 points and 11 rebounds from Valentine but they couldn’t get much offensive consistency outside of the junior’s 3-for-3 start from 3-point range. Trice finished with 16 points while senior forward Branden Dawson chipped in 12 points as Michigan State turned the ball over 14 times.
“It was a heck of a run. I’m just mad we lost because of BJ, Trav, what they’ve been through, what we’ve been through as a team this season,” Valentine said. “We’ve got to tip our hat off to Duke. They were the better team today.”
Saturday’s Final Four contest was the second time Duke and Michigan State played in Indianapolis during the 2014-15 season. The two teams met at the nearby Banker’s Life Fieldhouse on Nov. 18 as part of the Champions Classic. Duke led the entire game in an 81-71 win.