Duke couldn’t shoot, couldn’t rebound and couldn’t keep its key players on the floor for key portions of the second half.
But man they could defend, forcing the top-ranked Gonzaga Zags into 17 turnovers and winning a topsy-turvy heavyweight match-up 84-81 in Las Vegas Friday night.
Duke looked like they were going to run off and hide in the opening half and Gonzaga looked like they were poised to do the same thing in the second half against a staggering Duke team. But nobody is knocking back the young Blue Devils this season, at least not on this night.
Paolo Banchero was the nation’s best player in the first half, leading everyone with 20 points, hitting inside, outside and in between.
But Duke left points on the floor early. Wendell Moore, Jr. missed two foul shots and then a contested dunk after a steal. Duke wasn’t going to beat Gonzaga with Moore playing like that.
But Duke’s perimeter defense made it difficult for Gonzaga to run its offense. If the Zags thought they were going to have a repeat of their romp over UCLA earlier in the week, they were quickly disabused of that notion.
They did lead 4-0 but Duke answered with a 9-2 run to take a lead they would hold for the rest of the half.
Gonzaga’s freshman center Chet Holmgren went to the bench with two fouls with 10:23 left in first half and Duke up 21-18.
Could Duke use his absence to pull away?
Nope. The Blue Devils extended their lead to nine at 29-20 and led by eight on five other occasions, the last at 45-37. But Banchero was on the sideline with two fouls and the Blue Devils went scoreless on their final two possessions while Gonzaga scored five points.
Still, Duke led 45-42 at intermission. In addition to Banchero’s monster first half, Mark Williams gave Duke 11 points, three rebounds and five blocks and Trevor Keels added five points and five assists.
But Moore was held to four points and Duke only got one point off its bench, a foul shot by Theo John, one of five Duke makes from the line, against four misses.
The Zags had more balance, Rasir Bolton with 13 points, Julian Strawther with 10, Drew Timme with 9 and Holmgren with 6. The Zags out-rebounded Duke 20-17 but Duke only had 2 turnovers; Gonzaga had 6.
I think it’s fair to say that Gonzaga dodged some potential knock-out punches by Duke in the opening half. Give them credit for their poise and execution under pressure but they danced a mighty fine line.
Timme picked up his third foul early in second half and again Duke was poised for some separation. But the moment passed quickly and the tide turned, as Duke started running out of bigs. Williams quickly picked up his second and third fouls, the third on what appeared to be a clean block on Timme. Then Banchero went down with cramps. John replaced Williams and scored twice inside to help keep Duke afloat
And Moore did a 180-degree turn, playing perhaps the best half of his Duke career. With Banchero ineffective and then sidelined with cramps, Moore gave Duke seven crucial points in a two-minute span, including a layup that put Duke back on top 54-53.
In fact, Moore and John were the only Blue Devils to score for almost seven minutes.
And for a time it looked like it wasn’t going to be enough. Perhaps those Kevin McHale comparisons are a bit over the top but Timme really is a marvelous college player and Andrew Nembhard is a classic college point guard—11 assists—and who knew Julian Strawther could shoot like that.
But Duke toughed it out through some dark moments. It was a war of attrition down the stretch and it’s hard to pick out one decisive play. Gonzaga led 60-58 but Holmgren missed a 3 and Joey Baker grabbed the rebound. Then Baker got a steal and hit a 3-pointer and Duke was up 61-60.
Nembhard and Strawther scored and Duke was down by three. Baker hit another 3 to put Duke up 66-64 but the Zags answered with three field goals and led 70-66.
It was all downhill for the favorites after that. Banchero did return but gave Duke only a single foul shot in the second half. But Jeremy Roach manned up after a miserable shooting night and hit twice, the first a floater tying the game at 73 with 4:42 left and then a sweet left-handed layup in traffic to make it 80-77, with 42 seconds left.
Williams forced a Timme miss and grabbed the rebound. Moore hit two freebies and Duke was up 82-77, with 27 seconds left.
Moore was about the only Blue Devil to make a foul shot. He was 7 for 8 in the second half and scored 16 of his 20 points after intermission. But Keels struggled mightily from the line. He missed 3 of 4 but 2 of those misses were the front end of a one-and-one, so that’s really one out of a potential six points. And Roach missed one with a second left leaving Duke to slightly sweat out a full-court prayer.
Banchero ended with 21 points, while Williams had a 17-point, 9-rebound, 5-block line. He missed only one of nine field-goal attempt, an ill-advised 3-pointer.
Strawther led the Zags with 20 but neither Timme (17 points) nor Holmgren (16) could dominate inside despite Duke’s big-man issues.
Duke only made 15 of 25 from the line and was out-rebounded 42-31. But Gonzaga only went to the line 11 times—they made 7—hit only 6 of 21 from beyond the arc and turned it over those 17 times, to Duke’s eight. Nembhard had six of those turnovers.
A great win, perhaps enough to propel Duke to number one in the polls before a dangerous trip to Ohio State Tuesday. And it’s still November and we all know not to place too much weight on great November wins.
That said, what a great win. Shooting comes and goes but defense tends to stick around.
As does toughness.
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Player Of The Game vs. Gonzaga
This poll is closed
Wendell Moore Jr.