LAHAINA, Hawaii — In the final seconds of Gonzaga‘s win over No. 1 Duke in the Maui Invitational championship, Blue Devils freshman R.J. Barrett decided to put the game in his hands. As he drove toward the middle of the floor and searched for a shot, Bulldogs junior Rui Hachimura, who recorded a game-high 20 points and seven rebounds in Gonzaga’s thrilling 89-87 victory, smiled at him.
Then, he blocked Barrett’s shot, a punctuating play for a Gonzaga team that relied on its experience in the most intense game of the college basketball season thus far.
“I think he switched on me and he was trying to play one on one against me, and I was like ‘OK, let’s do it,'” Hachimura said after the game. “We’re the best team in the country and I’m the best player too. I have to guard him.”
Gonzaga, which trailed for just 12 seconds on Wednesday, amassed a 16-point lead in the second half before Duke made a tremendous run to make it a one-possession game in the final seconds. Yet, Gonzaga competed until the end and won without standout Killian Tillie, who is sidelined with an ankle injury.
When Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski came to Maui for this week’s tournament, he had the most imposing collection of talent in America. Dozens of NBA executives and scouts took the six-hour flight from the mainland to see Zion Williamson, Barrett and Cam Reddish — perhaps the top three picks in next summer’s NBA draft — and the other prospects in the field.
A pair of top-10 wins, including a 34-point destruction of Kentucky in the Champions Classic and a six-point victory over Auburn in the Maui Invite’s semifinals on Tuesday, established the Blue Devils as America’s most dangerous team. Analysts picked the Blue Devils over the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers in a hypothetical match-up. An unbeaten run, a la the Kentucky squad that won its first 38 games in 2014-15, seemed attainable.
Although Krzyzewski had amassed the most talent in Maui, however, he couldn’t infuse his young program with instant experience. “I thought we looked young,” Krzyzewski said after the loss. “It’s not that we were tired because we both played the same amount of games, but I think emotionally they were more ready to play then we were and that’s something you learn.”
Gonzaga connected on nearly 70 percent of its shots for the bulk of the first half before making six of its first seven shots after the break. But the Bulldogs finished 8-for-27 the rest of the way and missed seven of its 17 free throw attempts in the second half, opening the door for Duke’s run.
Even as their lead disappeared and their shots (and free throws) stopped falling in a wild atmosphere, the Bulldogs did not panic. Instead, they relied on their defense. Per ESPN Stats and Info, Williamson and Barrett combined to shoot just 14-of-33 (42.4%) in the paint Wednesday, a drop from the 64.3 percent clip they’d produced in the paint during the first five games.
Duke seemed dazed by the moment. The Bulldogs seemed to feed off it.
Josh Perkins, who has won 103 games with the Bulldogs, finished with seven assists and two turnovers. Brandon Clarke, a transfer from San Jose State, endured foul trouble that affected his time on the floor, but 17 points and game-changing defensive plays (six blocks) helped the Bulldogs seal the win and likely propel themselves into the No. 1 spot in the major polls next week.
“Experience played a big role in this,” said Zach Norvell Jr., who finished with 18 points. “[Josh] Perkins, with him being one of the top guards in the country, him controlling the pace of the game was huge for us. We came down the stretch and got some stops. We knew we were winning it on the defensive end. Things were kind of a little shaky down the stretch on the offensive end, but we locked into our plan and sat down and got some stops.”
Gonzaga coach Mark Few said he had a “nice little calmness” even as Duke tied the game late because he trusted his players. Krzyzewski said that’s the benefit of having an experienced roster.
“Gonzaga is a team you’d like four days of preparation for,” he said. “They’re old and they play their butts off and Hachimura is the guy you can go to to get a bucket.”1, Duke, Experienced, Gonzaga, helps, roster, upset