No question. Duke caught an unbelievable break down the stretch against Wisconsin before going on to win it all, 68-63. With 1:51 remaining in the second half, Duke up 63-58, the game was paused for officials to determine who would retain possession after the ball was tipped out of bounds. After about two minutes of reviewing the play at multiple angles and different speeds, the incompetent officials incorrectly gave Duke possession despite Duke’s Justise Winslow’s fingertips coming into contact with the ball on its way out of bounds. The call was apparent to almost everyone who watched the replay, and yet, somehow the only three people in a position to overturn the call got it wrong. Instead of the Badgers getting an opportunity to pull within two points, they stared at an eight point deficit following Tyus Jones’s three-pointer on the other end of the court. Jones, who went on a second half tear and led all scorers with 23 points, effectively won Coach K his fifth NCAA Tournament tile right then and there.
The blown call by the officials was so egregious and blatant that your mind automatically starts thinking conspiracy. And to further rationalize the “fixed” way of thinking, you can harp on Wisconsin getting called for 13 fouls in the second half, which is more than its per game average of 12.7.
Badgers head coach Bo Ryan recognized the uncharacteristic play of his team and addressed it after the game by dealing soft blows to the refs. He said, “They [Wisconsin’s players] just came together to do all the things that they accomplished. Highest offensive efficiency. A team that committed the least number of fouls during the year. A team that got to the free-throw line. So these guys played 30-some games that way. It’s just unfortunate this one had to be played out that way.” And further hammered the point by adding,
This group was so together and enjoyed each other’s company, could needle with each other. They did a lot of good things. I mean, again, if you go through all the things that this team did as a team, the offensive efficiency I mentioned, fewest number of fouls in the country, fewest number of turnovers. Do you know what it takes to have the fewest number of turnovers? A lot of discipline, a lot of work goes into that. If you’ve ever tried to play the game, it’s not as easy as taking care of the ball as you think. But this group just set another standard of taking care of the ball. Playing defense with their feet. Things like that. Not their hands. Sometimes hands are allowed more than others. You know how the game goes. Like I said before, you always got to adjust.
Ryan’s criticism of the refs is so nuanced that it’s easy to overlook. However, his point wasn’t lost on reporters, analysts, and fans. We get it. Duke, 16-20 from the line, benefited from the whistle happy refs’ generosity, while Wisconsin was a lot less lucky in that department. They started out 2-6 from the stripe, and finished with half of the opportunities as Duke, going 6-10. And yet, for a good portion of the game, Wisconsin looked poised to knockout the perennial favorites. The Blue Devils faced its largest deficit of the tournament, nine points, and was forced to manufacture a comeback without its two best players, Jahlil Okafor (10 pts, 3 reb) and Justise Winslow (11 pts, 9 reb).
Sure the refs had a hand in the outcome of the game, which is always worst case scenario during a national championship game, but you’re living in crazy denial if you ignore that the Badgers successfully found a way to take Duke’s Okafor out of the game, but was unsuccessful at taking advantage of his absence. As Okafor was benched for 18 minutes, and held scoreless for 27, the Badgers struggled through two scoring droughts. The first lasted 4 minutes and 12 seconds, allowing the Blue Devils to go on a 6-0 run, and the second lasted 3 minutes and 18 seconds. Duke went on a 10-0 run, powered by the heroics of freshman Grayson Allen (16 pts, 2 reb), Jones, and two crucial buckets and a block by Okafor, when he finally returned.
Quite frankly, Wisconsin’s offense simply stalled and blew it. Missed layups, poor shot selection, and a shot clock violation, coupled with poor defense on the other end of the court highlight the missed opportunities by the Badgers. The refs made some suspect calls that were blatantly in favor of Duke, but the Badgers held destiny in the palms of its hands but let too many opportunities slip through its fingers.