LAS VEGAS – It was played 1,050 miles from one campus and more than 2,300 from the other, yet it still attracted the largest basketball crowd in Nevada state history. When it wasn’t a chess match between two of the sport’s most decorated coaches, it was often a high-octane battle between two of the country’s top freshmen. By halftime, most would agree it was already the most compelling matchup of the early college basketball season – and the closing 20 minutes didn’t do anything to diminish that.
One of the country’s top-five teams had to swallow its first loss Friday night, but none of the 20,389 fans who attended Gonzaga vs. Duke walked out of T-Mobile Arena feeling short-changed from a game in which the fifth-ranked Blue Devils were able to edge out the top-ranked Bulldogs, 84-81, in front of a sellout crowd on the Las Vegas strip.
If college basketball delivers a more thrilling game this season, it might not happen until the early stages of March – the earliest GU and Duke could meet for a rematch in the NCAA Tournament. If Friday’s game was any indication, Part 2 would be worth every penny.
“I would just say, I don’t know how far Duke is from here, it’s like 3,000 miles and we’re probably 2,000 miles,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “I mean how about that crowd, OK? And I would say college basketball is in great shape. Would you not agree with me on that?”
The top of the national rankings will undergo changes Monday, but it’s unlikely the Bulldogs (6-1) will drop far after narrowly missing out on a chance to defeat their third top-five opponent in the month of November. Duke, meanwhile, has a strong chance to overtake Gonzaga at No. 1.
Gonzaga spent much of the first half merely resisting Paolo Banchero and the Blue Devils (7-0), but the Bulldogs staged an attack of their own in the second, when Duke’s five-star freshman left the game for an extended period with cramps. By the time Banchero returned to the court after undergoing IV treatments in the Duke locker room, Gonzaga had taken a four-point lead with 8:25 to play.
While the Bulldogs absorbed one blow after another from Banchero in the first half, Rasir Bolton came to the rescue with a trio of clutch 3-pointers. Despite a 20-point half from the Seattle native and O’Dea High graduate who was recruited heavily by Gonzaga, the Bulldogs went into the halftime break trailing just 45-42 thanks to a late Julian Strawther 3-pointer.
Strawther rescued Gonzaga in the second half, much the same way Bolton did in the first, especially as the Bulldogs’ heralded frontcourt – Drew Timme and Anton Watson, especially – continued to battle foul trouble. Strawther, a Las Vegas native, finished with a career-high 20 points and helped Gonzaga in the second half with his perimeter shooting.
“The kid, Strawther, big time,” said outgoing Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who was coaching his 1,406th career game with the Blue Devils on Friday. “He’s a key guy for them. We thought he was good, he was better.”
Gonzaga held its last lead with 5:02 remaining, but Duke pulled off a key two-play sequence when Jeremy Roach finished a second-chance opportunity in the paint and Wendell Moore Jr. picked off the ensuing inbounds pass, drawing a foul as he drove to the basket before sinking two free throws to restore a two-point Blue Devils lead.
Moore Jr. steadied Duke when Banchero was out, scoring 20 points to go with six rebounds and six assists. The junior forward also finished 7 of 10 from the free-throw line, converting a few of the late opportunities that Duke needed to salt away the win.
“It felt like a Final Four type game, the atmosphere was great and it was two Goliaths going at it,” Timme said. “They came out with the best shot and we came out a little flat, but I couldn’t be more proud of this team for withstanding that and being able to come back.
“We felt like we had a chance to win that game at the end and it was self-inflicted, we feel like. We’re a young team and we’re still learning every day and I couldn’t be more proud of this week.”
Timme was able to stay in the game despite playing much of the second half with four fouls and the junior forward finished with 17 points on 7-of-13 shooting. Chet Holmgren rebounded from a slow start to finish with 16 points, seven rebounds and three blocks – one of those coming on Banchero, the other player many NBA mock drafts anticipate will have a chance to be selected No. 1 in 2022.
Duke’s Mark Williams patrolled the paint on the other end of the floor, blocking a game-high five shots to go with his 17 points and nine rebounds.
“They came out and really did a great job of punching us in the mouth, but we also did every bit as good a job of withstanding it,” Few said. “Were able to claw back into that thing. … It was basically just getting back to what we were supposed to be doing on a lot of our ball-screen coverages, then just not settling on the offensive end.”