Connecticut went for the knock out punch early on, and yet Duke weathered the storm and then came roaring back. Down 15-4 the Blue Devils began to execute on the offensive end – turning an 11-point deficit into a five point lead at 24-19. The 20-4 run was achieved by turning up the intensity on the defensive end and hitting the glass on both ends of the floor.
Simply put, the offense had to get better after starting just 1-of-11 from the floor, Duke managed to hit 11-of-15 before going a bit cold again before half time. The second half saw the offense remain efficient with the guards penetrating and either drawing fouls or dishing to open teammates.
While the officiating will certainly be debated for months, Duke's big guys played very well considering all the foul problems. While Shelden Williams was his usual steady self, Shavlik Randolph put together his best half of basketball at Duke in the first 20 minutes. Randolph scored inside by taking it up strong and was constantly in the fray battling for rebounds. It was a huge step up from the player we saw earlier in the season.
In fact the first 37 minutes of the game were about as well as Duke could have played considering the foul problems inside and the quality of the opponent.
While the shooting percentages were lowered by some cold spells, the Blue Devils did manage to hold on to the ball as well as they had done all season, committing just nine turnovers while forcing 18 from UConn including eight steals.
What Went Wrong:
The harsh reality is that to win a championship you have to execute for the entire 40 minutes to have a chance to be crowned. Twice now Duke was unable to wrap up an otherwise strong performance in a championship setting. Against Maryland it was poor execution on the offensive end and a general lack of defense that ended up with the Terps taking home the ACC title. This time a similar blend allowed the Huskies a shot at the program's second national title in five years.
Connecticut missed a three pointer and Duke had a chance to rebound, but the Huskies found the loose ball bouncing towards them and quickly kicked it back outside for an open look. Then the lead was all of a sudden down to five. Inexplicably Duke ran down court and instead of utilizing the penetration that had proven to be so effective, proceeded to take a pair of long threes, both of which clanged harmlessly off the iron. UConn would capitalize and eventually take the lead as Okafor began having his way inside after Williams and Randolph were sent to the bench.
The foul problems were probably the difference in the game as far as the Blue Devils are concerned. Sure Okafor was saddled with two fouls early on, but he returned to bang inside as hard as ever and picked up only one more whistle the rest of the way. Meanwhile Duke got 15 fouls from Williams, Randolph, and Nick Horvath, many of which seemed inconsistent with what was or wasn't being called elsewhere.
Still the officials didn't cause Duke to miss four lay-ups in the first half. Nor did they force the Devils into converting a paltry 5-of-11 from the line in the first period, or 14-of-23 for the game. And it wasn't the guys in stripes who hit just 6-of-22 from long range.
Looking at the box score reveals that UConn either got a second wind, or Duke really saw the wheels coming off in the second half. The Huskies out-rebounded Duke 21-13 after halftime; shot 63% from the field; and an uncommon 80% from the line. They also hit 60% of their attempts from the perimeter, though they attempted just five. Once the momentum started, it was going to be hard to pull it out.
Player of the Game:
Luol Deng played extremely well considering he was forced to take on all kinds of responsibility, but his 16 points and 12 rebounds are becoming the norm for him. However, the emergence of Shavlik Randolph towards the end of this tournament has to bring a smile to the face of many a Duke fan. It's been a rough two seasons for the big Raleigh native, but if he can build on these last few weeks (and apologize to whatever referees he's apparently offended) then it looks like he could really emerge as a force for Duke next season. On this night his 13 points and six rebounds are good enough for player of the game honors.
Only place to go now is home. It's hard to imagine a Duke team without Chris Duhon at the helm, but that's the reality now. The graduation of the senior captain leaves Duke with a load of talent, but with a real question mark in the team leader category.
There are also roster question marks surrounding the Devils. While everyone in San Antonio is expected to return, the big decision may reside with Shaun Livingston, who would challenge immediately for the starting slot. The other recruits coming in each bring something to the table – DeMarcus Nelson will be a terrific scoring threat, while David McClure is already drawing comparisons to Chris Carrawell with his versatility and grit.
The new blood and the added year of experience make the off season longer as we all look forward to next year. However as Duke fans we should all take a moment and look back on all this team accomplished this season. A Final Four run is nothing to overlook, especially from a team many left for dead back in November.