Duke thrived on intimidation through its athleticism to win the season’s first five games and claim the nation’s No. 1 ranking.
On Wednesday, No. 3 Gonzaga overwhelmed Duke early and delivered what looked to be a haymaker punch to start the second half.
The script finally flipped on No. 1 Duke.
Having trailed by just 35 seconds while winning the season’s first five games, the Blue Devils led Gonzaga for a mere 12 seconds in a scintillating Maui Invitational final that ended with an 89-87 Bulldogs win.
Duke was on the court with all its players, but the Blue Devils weren’t ready for what the Bulldogs hit them with.
“We were physically ready to play but we weren’t as emotionally ready to play as we needed to be,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
Freshman point guard Tre Jones contributed to that poor early start when he missed a breakaway dunk. He reversed the game’s flow in the second half when he scored, stole the ball in the backcourt to draw a foul and hit two free throws.
Duke was down for the first time this season -- trailing by 16 before Jones’ heroics sparked a comeback -- but it proved it wasn’t out.
“They got no quit in them,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said.
In the end, the two players who led their respective teams in scoring decided this one.
When Duke’s R.J. Barrett switched to Gonzaga’s Rui Hachimura on defense, the 6-8 junior forward scored over the 6-7 freshman for what proved to be the game’s final basket with 1:12 to play.
Barrett attempted five shots in the game’s final minute. Three of them were blocked. Brandon Clarke had two of them, including the one that decided the game with one second left, and Hachimura had another.
For all of Duke’s hype this season, with its rock star freshmen and Hall of Fame coach, Gonzaga seized the moment to make its own mark.
Hachimura, every bit as much of a future NBA player as Barrett, relished the challenge.
“He switched on me and then he tried to play one-on-one against me,” Hachimura said. “And then I was like, `Okay, let’s do it.’ I have to, you know, we’re the best team in the country and I’m going to be like, you know, I’m the best player too, so I have to guard him.”
When Hachimura displayed that confidence with his comments, Few perked up sitting a few feet away.
“Amen, brother,” Few said. “Now you’re getting the message. I like this, yeah. That’s, let’s continue on this line of thought here.”
Hachimura wasn’t done.
“Yeah, my thinking was like I had to do it,” Hachimura said. “I got to do it.”
The Bulldogs did and Duke is unbeaten no more.
This loss will cost Duke it’s No. 1 ranking when the new polls come out on Monday. Krzyzewski’s concern is not with that, rather that this team use a pre-Thanksgiving loss in a game that felt a whole lot like March to grow and develop into a team that’s unbeatable in the NCAA Tournament.
Jones’ play during that stellar sequence, which came with 15:50 to play and Gonzaga leading 61-45, could very well be the lasting lesson for the Blue Devils.
“The last 14, 15 minutes of the game,” Krzyzewski said, “I thought we dictated everything, It started with Tre’s play. All of our guys need to know that just one guy making a play like that it can turn the emotion of the game around. Tre did that.”
The Blue Devils finally tied the game when Zion Williamson scored inside with 1:41 to play.
But Gonzaga, a talented team with the experience Duke lacks, would not be denied in its quest to claim a win that very well could make an NCAA championship favorite.
Gonzaga blocked four Duke shots in the final minute. The Blue Devils missed their final seven shots of the game, any of which could have tied the score.
“We have a number of moves, right at the bucket or right around the bucket, where we couldn’t finish or get fouled,” Krzyzewski said “That’s really the game right there. And they won.”
Duke and its four freshmen starters were challenged like never before. Duke will always face an experience deficit this season. This time the Blue Devils faced an experienced team with a similar amount of talent as well.
Hachimura scored 20 points, seven rebounds, five assists and three blocked shots. Brandon Clarke, another 6-8 junior, scored 17 points with five rebounds and six blocked shots.
Gonzaga shot 64.5 percent in the first half to take control of the game. Duke fought back when it went to a smaller lineup, using White or Javin DeLaurier in place of 6-11 Marques Bolden, that allowed the Blue Devils to find driving lanes that were previously blocked.
“We weren’t active or using the big or ball screens enough,” Krzyzewski said, “so that just opened driving lanes for us.”
Barrett and Williamson thrived, scoring 23 and 22 points. Jones had 17.
That was nearly enough to help Duke complete a memorable comeback. The comeback will provide lasting memories for the Blue Devils but in a different way than if they’d won.
“We finally started to fight in the last 14 minutes,” DeLaurier said, “whereas before we had just come to play and we weren’t as emotionally ready as Gonzaga. But the last 14 minutes we played how we’re capable of together with emotion and we just got to do that earlier.”
The later the season goes, when the competition is strong in ACC play and the NCAA tournament, the earlier in games the Blue Devils will have to bring that fight.
Gonzaga sent a message with its play and its words that it intends to stand in Duke’s way come NCAA tournament time.
Duke has four months to prepare for another matchup.