INDIANAPOLIS — At the bottom of the pile, two young basketball players and old friends embraced, celebrating the championship they had been talking about winning long before choosing to play together at Duke.
Tyus Jones picked up his big buddy, Jahlil Okafor, scoring 23 points and hitting two huge 3s late to help the Blue Devils overcome their big man’s foul trouble and beat Wisconsin 68-63 on Monday.
Jones was named the most outstanding player for the Final Four after his performance in the NCAA tournament championship game.
He is the star Duke freshman who can get a little overlooked in the long shadows of fellow rookies Okafor and Justise Winslow. Both of them were hampered by fouls against the Badgers. Okafor played 22 minutes and scored 10 points, although he made his presence felt late as the Blue Devils were pulling away with a 12-5 surge to end the game.
“I told him to pick me up, and he said, ‘I got you,'” Okafor said about Jones. “He told me to stay ready.”
Jones nailed a straight-on 3 with 4:08 left that gave Duke the lead for good. He then put a seal on the Blue Devils’ fifth national title with another 3 from the top to make it 66-58 with 1:24 left. Jones’ face lit up and his jaw dropped, looking amazed at what he had just done.
“That’s just one of those situations where you dream of hitting a shot like that late in the game,” Jones said. “It was just emotions running through me, and you just got to soak it all in. You don’t expect to make a shot like that, but my teammates have confidence in me. When I saw it go through the hoop, it was one of those things. … I’m at a loss for words, to be honest.”
Jones and Okafor came to Duke as a package deal of sorts. Jones, the slick 6-foot-1 guard from Minnesota, and Okafor, the 6-11 stud from Chicago, have been friends since grade school and played together for USA Basketball.
“We just hugged each other,” Okafor said. “This is what we wanted to do. I’ve known Tyus since third grade. For us to be together is a special moment.”
Big shots late have become Jones’ specialty at Duke. The first step is not being afraid to take them.
“We give him confidence,” Okafor said. “He’ll tell you first off that we give him the confidence. He knows that we believe in him. And that makes it easier on him.”
Jones said he spent the night before the championship game watching old “One Shining Moment” videos from NCAA tournaments past on YouTube. He was alone — but it turned out that he wasn’t alone.
“I heard Jahlil did as well. I’m sure a number of the guys on the team did as well,” Jones said. “You’re just so invested emotionally and physically to just have it right in front of you, you just want to make sure you make the most of it.”