This is what everybody wanted, right?
No. 1 Duke versus No. 3 Gonzaga for the championship of the best early-season tournament of the year, the Maui Invitational.
And the game lived up to it. All the way until the last seconds.
“This has been something,” ESPN’s Dan Schulman said with 10 seconds left, Gonzaga up two and Rui Hachimura about to miss a second consecutive free throw.
“Maui never disappoints, in and out of the gym,” analyst Jay Bilas responded. And it didn’t during Gonzaga’s hold-on-to-your-remote, 89-87 victory Wednesday afternoon.
What they saw …
• Gonzaga missed its last four free throws – two by Hachimura and two by Brandon Clarke – giving the Blue Devils a chance in a game GU led almost from the start.
Duke’s RJ Barrett took the final shot, his drive to the rim challenged by Hachimura and blocked by Clarke. The clock expired before the Blue Devils got another look.
As the final play unfolded, this is what you heard from the veteran Schulman: “Barrett driving, knocked away and Gonzaga wins.”
Short, precise, perfect.
“Barrett drove in, got the contact but couldn’t get the foul call,” Bilas said as the replay rolled. “Gonzaga, with grit and determination, wins it with its defense. How about that?”
• Before the game, Bilas tagged point guard Josh Perkins as Gonzaga’s most important player. Not much of a palm frond he was out on there.
Perkins controls the Zags’ offense, initiating it about 90 percent of the time, and is tasked with dealing with the opponent’s pressure – no matter the opponent.
The Blue Devils didn’t apply much in the first half, and Perkins picked them apart, with five assists and just one turnover.
That changed. Perkins finished with nine points, seven assists and two turnovers.
It was Hachimura (20 points, seven rebounds), Clarke (17 and five rebounds in limited minutes) and Zach Norvell (18 points) who supplied the scoring.
• As the game came down to crunch time, Gonzaga’s offense slowed.
“The offense of Gonzaga has been a little bit bogged down,” Bilas said as the Zags tried to hold on to their double-digit lead. “They are laboring right now.”
Part of that might have been fatigue, something that, according to sideline reporter Kanoa Leahey, the Gonzaga coaching staff was trying to combat in late timeouts.
The Zags’ depth has been tested by the three games in less than 72 hours. And it hasn’t been used as much as it might have been.
It showed in the final 10 minutes in some leaky transition defense, shots coming up short consistently and the inability to grab loose balls.
“They have to find the answer on the offensive end,” Bilas said after Duke had cut what once was a 16-point lead to six, 81-75. “They haven’t run great offense the last couple minutes.”
That possession ended with a GU turnover.
• Because of Gonzaga’s offensive efficiency, the vaunted Duke transition game was an afterthought early on. Of the Blue Devils’ 39 first-half points, four came in transition. The Zags had nine as part of their 47.
That changed, too.
The Blue Devils got their transition game going as Gonzaga struggled on offense. They finished with 14 fast-break points.
What we saw …
• To beat Duke this season – most seasons, actually – you have to keep the Blue Devils out of the key. They want to attack the rim with the bounce, and force the defense to react.
The Zags have improved on this so much in recent seasons, but it didn’t show in the early going. Duke got into the paint with impunity, and that helped it on the offensive boards as well. At the first media timeout, the Blue Devils had six offensive rebounds and four second-chance points.
“The emphasis in the Gonzaga huddle was on the defensive end,” Leahey said in the first half. “They said they are giving up too much dribble penetration to the Blue Devils, they need to fill those gaps harder.
“They have to clean that up, according to Mark Few.”
Getting to the rim is more of a personal assignment for Duke. For the Zags, it’s more of a team thing, coming off a ball screen. The Blue Devil they picked on was junior Marques Bolden, the 6-foot-11 post who struggles with the coverage.
“They are really trying to draw Marques Bolden away from the bucket,” Bilas said after Filip Petrusev hit a first-half 3-pointer, part of his much-needed 11 points.
• One of the turning points was missed by Bilas and Schulman, but probably not by Gonzaga fans. And it was turned in by Teddy Valentine, known in college basketball circles as TV Teddy.
The veteran official, who lost his Big Ten games this season after some high-profile issues last year, called Clarke for his third foul with 18 minutes, 38 seconds left and Gonzaga ahead 52-39.
Problem was, Zion Williamson dived for a loose ball, knocked it out of bounds and Clarke did not make contact. But not according to Valentine. He blew his whistle and Clarke had to go to the bench.
That foul came up big 7 minutes later when Clarke fouled Williamson around the hoop. His fourth foul took him back to the bench.
“That’s what magnifies the cheap ones you pick up through the course of a game,” Bilas said after Clarke’s fourth. “That’s why you can’t waste a foul.”
Or have a missed call.
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