LAHAINA, Hawaii — As recently as Wednesday morning, back on the mainland before most of us five time zones to the west of New York had even gotten out of bed, there were smart basketball people on television discussing the dominance of Duke and whether Mike Krzyzewski’s top-ranked Blue Devils could beat an NBA team. Then, on Wednesday afternoon, Duke went out and lost to a WCC team. So this Maui Invitational did not end as expected.
And, please, let me say it before you say it: Yes, I know, Gonzaga is not a normal “WCC team.” (I only wrote it that way above for the cheap wordplay. I apologize.) But, likewise, Duke is not an NBA team — even a bad one. And perhaps we can all agree on that now that the Blue Devils have taken their first loss via a fast-paced, back-and-forth affair that doubled as the most entertaining game this college basketball season has provided so far.
“It was just a fantastic game,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said after dealing Duke its first loss ever in the Maui Invitational. (The Blue Devils are now 17-1 all-time in this event.) But the truth is that, for a while, there was no evidence that the capacity crowd here at the Lahaina Civic Center — a crowd, by the way, that featured 27 scouts from 32 different NBA franchises — would be treated to anything other than a blowout.
Gonzaga jumped Duke the way Duke normally jumps teams. The Zags shot 64.5 percent from the field in the opening 20 minutes and took a 16-point lead early in the second half while Duke star Zion Williamson, believe it or not, was out there missing dunks and stuff. Duke trailed 79-66 with 7:20 remaining. The game wasn’t over, obviously. But it did seem decided.
And then …
“I feel like we just got to playing how we know we can play,” said Duke freshman Tre Jones, who helped spark a comeback so ferocious that, in the United States, still 90 minutes after the final buzzer had sounded, the words Duke, Gonzaga, Zags, RJ Barrett and Zion were all still trending on Twitter.
There was an RJ dunk.
There was a Zion dunk.
The score went from 79-66 to 87-87 in less than six minutes thanks to a 21-8 run that culminated with a post move from Williamson and served as a reminder that, yeah, Duke has three projected top-five picks on its roster. Game on. But on the subsequent possession, Rui Hachimura, a projected lottery pick himself, scored the last of his 20 points to give the Zags an 89-87 advantage that held up when Duke missed seven straight shots in the final 54 seconds.
Hachimura blocked Barrett at the rim with 32 seconds left.
He talked enthusiastically about it afterward.
“[Barrett] switched on me and then tried to play one-on-one against me,” Hachimura said in a way that suggested he took offense to Barrett intentionally creating that specific matchup. “And then I was like, “OK, let’s do it.” … We’re the best team in the country. And [I was] like, ‘You know, I’m the best player too.’ So I have to guard him.”
“Amen, brother!” Few said, big smile on his face. “Now you’re getting the message.”
Few was later asked what it meant to hear Hachimura speak so confidently.
“It means everything,” Few answered. “We have been working on this. I’ve been working on him to truly believe that [he’s the best]. … He was wanting the ball [against Duke], and when we got him the ball, for the most part, he was delivering against some high-level athletes and some damn-good defenders around the rim. So that’s a really, really good sign for us.”
Another good sign: Gonzaga just beat top-ranked Duke despite the Zags’ leading returning scorer from last season’s team, Killian Tillie, is sidelined because of ankle surgery until late December. So this isn’t even the final, or best, version of Gonzaga.
Good luck, WCC.
As for the Blue Devils, they’ll be fine. No, they wouldn’t beat the Cleveland Cavaliers. No, they’re not going undefeated. But they’re still the most talented college basketball team on the planet — not to mention one that beat two top-10 teams (Kentucky and Auburn) before Thanksgiving and is still, even after this loss, ranked No. 1 at KenPom.
Doubt them at your own risk.
But maybe cool it with the hyperbole?