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Jim’s Take On Duke’s Championship Classic Win Over Kentucky

An auspicious debut for Duke and two freshman in particular.

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State Farm Champions Classic - Kentucky v Duke
 NEW YORK, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 09: Mark Williams #15 of the Duke Blue Devils dunks the ball against Sahvir Wheeler #2 of the Kentucky Wildcats during the State Farm Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden on November 09, 2021 in New York City.
Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Freshmen Trevor Keels and Paolo Banchero led Duke to a 79-71 win over Kentucky in the season-opening Champions Classic in Madison Square Garden Tuesday night.

Note the placement of the names. Not that Banchero wasn’t everything he was advertised to be. Despite sitting out portions of the second half with leg cramps, Banchero had 22 points and 7 rebounds.

But Keels was the story. He led everyone with 25 points, many of them during a crucial stretch early in the second half, when Kentucky was putting an enormous amount of game pressure on a battered and cramping Duke team.

If you don’t have a rooting interest, it was a pretty compelling first half.

Of course, it was Duke and Kentucky, two of college basketball’s most polarizing programs, so lots of people have rooting interests here. Duke kept threatening to get some significant separation, five points at 13-8 and 25-20, then six at 31-25, then seven at 34-27 when Trevor Keels hit a 3-pointer, then seven again at 39-32.

But Keels’ bomb was Duke’s only 3-pointer of the game and Kentucky was 6-11 at the half. The Wildcats also out-rebounded Duke 25-21 in the opening stanza, with a dozen offensive boards giving them extra possessions, most of those offensive rebounds by West Virginia transfer Oscar Tshiebwe, who outplayed Duke’s Mark Williams and ended the game with a jaw-dropping 19 rebounds.

Then again Duke went to the line 17 times to Kentucky’s four. The Wildcats had 15 more points on 3-pointers, Duke had nine more points from the foul line.

And maybe Duke could have done a better job of guarding Davidson transfer Kellan Grady, who knocked down three of four from beyond the arc, the final one cutting Duke’s halftime lead to four.

Kentucky rode the momentum from that Grady three to a great start to the second half. They outscored Duke 7-2 to take their first lead, at 42-41. They subsequently led 44-43, 46-45 and 48-47.

But they could never extend that lead and Keels was a big reason why. He hit five field goals in a span of five minutes, two of which enabled Duke to regain the lead.

“So I knew when P went out somebody had to step up,” Keels said. “And that’s what I did. I kept looking at the score and I just made sure we was up and we was winning. That’s something that I look at all the time. I don’t really care about my points or nothing like that. It’s that we come out with the victory.”

Duke also got a huge boost from reserve center Theo John. With Banchero fighting cramps and Williams fighting foul trouble, John gave Duke a great assist on a backdoor pass to A.J. Griffin and muscled inside against a double team to give Duke its first double digit lead at 61-50.

“Four of our guys got cramps in the second half,”Krzyzewski noted. “Two of them had IVs. Paolo you had an IV, right, and Wendell [Moore]. And so our bench had to come through. And A.J. really gave us a big lift. And I think that was one of the keys to the game. And Theo. Thank goodness we have him with his physicality.”

A Banchero jumper put Duke up 69-54, with hints of a blow-out. But the Wildcats hung tough, an 11-0 run making it 69-65.

Guess who broke the run?

Yes, that would be Mr. Keels.

Then Banchero got an old-fashioned three-point play and Duke salted it away.

Duke never did get that perimeter game going and didn’t get much from the bench except for John and that Griffin layup. But you can still win a game by attacking the basket and Duke hit 30 of 48 from inside the arc and held Kentucky to 1 for 7 on 3s in the second half; Grady was scoreless after intermission.

And besides, no one wants to peak in November. Duke has five non-conference home games in an 11-day span, plenty of time to build on a pretty impressive opening win before high-profile matches against Gonzaga and Ohio State.

Banchero said this is just the beginning.

“We’re a great team. We’re going to play together. We’re going to play hard all 40 minutes. And, yeah, I mean, we’re going to play like Duke.”

Krzyzewski took a more pragmatic approach.


Player Of The Game vs. Kentucky

This poll is closed

  • 0%
    Wendell Moore
    (7 votes)
  • 2%
    Paolo Banchero
    (17 votes)
  • 0%
    Mark Williams
    (4 votes)
  • 0%
    Jeremy Roach
    (3 votes)
  • 93%
    Trevor Keels
    (718 votes)
  • 0%
    AJ Griffin
    (2 votes)
  • 0%
    Joey Baker
    (7 votes)
  • 1%
    Theo John
    (10 votes)
  • 0%
    Jaylen Blakes
    (4 votes)
772 votes total Vote Now