The Gonzaga-Duke game was nearing tip time when Mark Few and Mike Krzyzewski met behind makeshift curtains close to the court.
“So I talked to Mark before the game and told him how much I liked their team and what he’s done,” Krzyzewski said following the Maui Invitational title game. “He’s done a marvelous job with his program, and it’s an honor to play against him and their fan base, and it’s a great game for college basketball … That was really good basketball.”
Gonzaga scored at least 84 points in all three games, dropping 91 on Arizona and 89 on Duke. The Zags had 54 points in the second half against Arizona. The Zags were on pace for 100 points with 10 minutes remaining versus Duke.
What stood out is the Zags’ diversity on offense. They had half-court success on isolation plays, particularly working off ball screens. They beat Duke in transition. Seven players hit 3-pointers and they still managed 40 paint points.
Forwards made 3-pointers and delivered in the lane. Guards and wings did the same.
And they did it for three days against high-level competition, including a Duke team that looked unbeatable in its first four games.
Rui Hachimura worked over several defenders before the Blue Devils started bringing double-teams. He still scored 20 points and handed out five assists.
“They’re an outstanding offensive team,” Krzyzewski said. “Not that they’re bad defensively, but they have great movement, and we weren’t talking. Our bigs were not able to defend their actions the way we needed them to.”
The Zags are a handful to defend. It won’t get any easier for foes when Killian Tillie, another versatile forward, returns in late December.
“They can hurt you from behind the arc, they really are terrific in transition and there aren’t many guards that are more experienced or better than Josh Perkins,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “He can score, he can make his teammates better. It’s hard to hold them down for 40 minutes behind the arc.”
The Zags really aren’t that old, but each coach who lost to Gonzaga took notice of their edge in experience. In today’s college basketball, programs like Arizona and particularly Duke routinely lose one- and two-and-dones to the pros. Duke starts four outstanding freshmen, three considered top-five NBA Draft picks. Arizona has reloaded with a transfer, a grad transfer and standout freshman point guard Brandon Williams, who was on GU’s radar.
“We have more experience than those Duke guys,” Hachimura said.
Gonzaga starts one senior, Perkins, juniors Hachimura and Brandon Clarke and sophomore wings Zach Norvell Jr. and Corey Kispert. Seniors Geno Crandall and Jeremy Jones and freshman Filip Petrusev are the top reserves.
They have a plenty of experience, even if it was acquired in a different uniform for transfers Crandall (North Dakota) and Clarke (San Jose State).
That know-how helped the Zags overcome a 13-point deficit against Arizona and survive late rallies by Illinois and Duke. After a first-half foulfest, Gonzaga quickly absorbed defensive adjustments in the second half and limited the Wildcats to 29 points after Arizona scored 45 in the first half.
“It’s not experience just for me, it’s experience from Coach Few and the staff,” Perkins said. “They have been there before and they stay positive. So I mentioned to the guys to stay positive, stick together and we all did that. You didn’t see anybody’s head going down, you didn’t see us bickering at each other.”
Duke is obviously battle-tested after facing three teams ranked in the top eight, but it was outplayed by the Zags in the first half. GU played in the late game Monday and Tuesday but still looked fresher than the Blue Devils at the outset of Wednesday’s noon (Hawaiian time) tip.
Krzyzewski said he was proud of his team for its late charge, but noted, “I think three days in a row for young (players) emotionally, not physically, is tough. And that’s where veterans win, or have a better opportunity to win.”
Jones was superb off the bench and Petrusev produced quality minutes. Both were comfortable in high-stress situations.
The Zags probably don’t win the Illinois game without Jones. Their highest possible finish would have been fifth with an opening-round loss. Jones made two free throws with 9.9 seconds left to seal the victory. He had his first double-double with a career-high 14 points and 11 rebounds.
“He goes to the offensive boards, he cuts, timely cuts off the ball, that’s how he’s getting all those layups,” Few said. “He’s an opportunistic defender and that’s what he does. He basically won the game for us.”
Petrusev was solid against the Illini with five points and six boards, but his best game was versus Duke and his former Montverde (Florida) Academy teammate RJ Barrett: Petrusev finished with 11 points and four boards.
Petrusev’s bucket after one of GU’s best possessions of the tournament gave the Zags a 61-45 lead in the title game. When Duke started to rally, he had a putback, stretching the margin to 12.
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