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Michigan State vs. Duke final score, 2015 Final Four: Blue Devils dominate Spartans for trip to title game

The Blue Devils are white-hot heading into the championship game on Monday.

The Duke Blue Devils will play for the national championship. Duke's defense spectacularly forced the Michigan State Spartans into a first-half drought that proved fatal, and Duke's clinical offense nursed its lead just right. The Blue Devils won 81-61 and will play for the school's fifth NCAA championship on Monday.

Duke's defensive revival has been well-documented during the NCAA Tournament, and it was at its best in the national semifinal. After the Spartans took an early lead before the first TV timeout, Duke emerged and kept Tom Izzo's team to just 3-of-22 shooting, a cold streak that extended beyond halftime.

Justise Winslow led Duke with 19 points and nine rebounds, and Jahlil Okafor added 18 points on 7-of-11 shooting.

Michigan State appeared to show some life in the second half, getting to within 13 points at 44-31 on a lob to Branden Dawson with 16:30 to go. But Duke didn't slow down, and when 6'4 freshman reserve Grayson Allen elevated for a big slam off his own miss, it was all but over.

Michigan State hit four threes in the first four minutes and took a 14-6 lead, facing Duke against its largest deficit of the tournament. But Duke's defense clamped down, and the Blue Devils surged ahead on offense behind the dominant hand of Jahlil Okafor. The ACC Player of the Year scored on a variety of moves from the post: a drive and finger roll, a face-up jumper casually banked in off the glass. There was also this, which gave Duke its first lead at 18-16:

Justise Winslow picked up his second foul during the Blue Devils' run and was sent to the bench, but Duke kept going. In all, Duke's 22-6 run flipped an eight-point deficit into an eight-point lead over a 12-minute span. Duke took a 36-25 lead into the half. Michigan State had missed 17 of its last 20 shots. Things were not looking up for the Spartans, and the mood on the Michigan State bench at Lucas Oil Stadium was as such:

Mike Krzyzewski is now 3-1 against Tom Izzo in the NCAA Tournament and 2-0 in the Final Four. Izzo is now 2-5 in national semifinals. Michigan State kept the game from becoming too much of a blowout, at least until conceding in the final 90 seconds, but never got any closer than 13.

3 things we learned

1. Embrace Jahlil Okafor for what he is, not what he isn't. Duke's big man -- for one more game, anyway -- has been knocked recently for his defensive struggles. He's just average on that end of the court. Because he's so advanced offensively, his defense draws a lot of negative attention. He's even recently been knocked from his top spot atop many NBA draft boards because of his struggles throughout the tournament. And that's not to say Kentucky's Karl-Anthony Towns isn't deserving of the top pick. But no big man in college can control a game offensively like Okafor can. No player of any size can.

Okafor is in a class on his own, and he showed it Saturday when the Blue Devils rode their big man to rebound from a poor performance in the first few minutes. Even still, Okafor didn't get as many touches as his dominance (and Michigan State's foul trouble and lack of depth down low) likely warranted. He'll only play one more game at Duke before he's off to the pros, and no matter what happens in the national championship game, he deserves to be remembered for what he proved in one year at Duke rather than what he lacked.

2. Duke's defense really is better! The Blue Devils were ranked No. 80 in Division I in adjusted defensive efficiency heading into the tournament -- even at that point, it had been trending upward -- and were No. 18 prior to tip Saturday night. Whatever Coach K has done to help his team along defensively, it's worked marvelously. Duke mixed in a bit of zone, and the Spartans started feeling pressure brought on by their collective cold hand. That pressure turned into impatience on offense and frustration on defense. Sure, Michigan State started missing looks that ranged from quite reasonable to that shot is more difficult to miss than it is to make. But that's part of what dominant defense does to a team. Pressure on the ball was constant, and Duke kept the Spartans from crashing the offensive glass despite all those misses. Particularly key to Duke's defense in the first half were Amile Jefferson and Marshall Plumlee, who kept Duke's defense lively despite Justise Winslow's foul trouble.

3. Michigan State's front line was no match for Okafor. Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine were formidable opponents for Duke's backcourt, and it was behind Valentine's hot hand that Michigan State sprinted out to its early lead. But when the shots stopped falling, Michigan State had no recourse at the basket to find higher-percentage looks. Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling presented no challenge on the block, and Branden Dawson -- a high-flying threat at the basket -- had no luck on the offensive glass to keep Duke on its heels. In other words: Michigan State didn't have Draymond Green or Adreian Payne, and though the presence of a reliable scorer under the basket likely wouldn't have tilted the favor of the game all the way back to Michigan State, it left the Spartans without a failsafe to keep the game hanging in the balance a bit longer. Duke pounced like a team playing for a shot at a title should.

★★★