Duke is not invincible.
No. 3 Gonzaga used a combination of hot shooting and fearless aggression to take down the top-ranked Blue Devils, 89-87 at Wednesday’s Maui Invitational final, putting an early end to talk of an undefeated season led by Duke’s fabulous freshmen.
The Bulldogs were hot early, hitting 64.5 percent of their field goals and 6-of-10 3-pointers in the first half to put Duke on the ropes early for the first time this season. Their offensive prowess negated Duke’s greatest strength, its transition offense.
The Blue Devils couldn’t get out and running and scored just four transition points in the game’s first 20 minutes.
A Trey Jones 3-point buzzer-beater from just beyond halfcourt cut the Duke deficit to eight points and gave the Blue Devils something to build on for the second half.
But Gonzaga came out swinging, scoring the stanza’s first eight points to build the lead to 55-39 with around 18 minutes left in the game.
When Zion Williamson clanged one of his trademark dunks off the back of the rim, things appeared to be slipping away from Duke.
Zion Williamson blows the dunk pic.twitter.com/jZN144BWah
— CBB Talk (@CBBSuperFan) November 21, 2018
But Duke found its transition legs on a late run and repeatedly made Gonzaga pay for its mistakes while leaning on its superior athleticism to tie the game at 87 with 1:45 remaining.
Williamson and fellow freshman star R.J. Barrett repeatedly forced their way inside while cutting down the 16-point deficit as Gonzaga went cold on the other end.
But when Gonzaga’s own NBA lottery prospect Rui Hachimura hit a layup to take an 89-87 lead with 1:17 remaining, there would be no more scoring.
Gonzaga’s defense was the star down the stretch. Hachimura and Josh Clarke combined to miss four consecutive free throws in the game’s final 30 seconds, but made up for it with stifling defense in the post.
Each of them came up with a block and a defensive rebound in Duke’s last two possessions as the Blue Devils looked inside and failed in attempts to tie the game.
Hachimura, a junior forward, led the way for Gonzaga with 20 points, seven rebounds and five assists while Zach Norvell Jr. chipped in 18 and Clarke overcame foul trouble to log 15 points along with seven blocks.
Williamson and Barrett were stars as expected for Duke. Williamson logged 22 points and 10 rebounds while adding four blocks that showcased his spectacular athleticism. Barrett, meanwhile, tallied 23 points, seven rebounds and three assists.
But Duke’s freshmen looked like freshmen for the first time for much of the game. Gonzaga controlled the scoring and the tempo, hitting 53.9 percent of their field goals, including 10-of-19 3-pointers.
Duke looked fazed initially after getting hit in the mouth and hit just 42.5 percent of its field goals for the game while connecting of 5-of-18 3-pointers.
But the Blue Devils showed resilience in their late rally, looking like the team that had run over its previous five opponents late in the second half. They just didn’t have enough to beat a talented, more experienced Gonzaga squad that looked like the better team on Wednesday.
This will likely be the storyline in March. Barring injury, Duke will be the most talented team on the floor every game this season. Whether that talent can topple more experienced teams with NBA talent of their own in the late stages of the NCAA Tournament will determine if Duke goes out like Michigan’s Fab Five or Anthony Davis’ 2012 Kentucky team.
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