LAS VEGAS – With coaches still making tweaks to their rotations, freshmen adjusting to the strength and physicality of the college game and teams working to build chemistry, it can be hard for early-season matchups to live up to their billing.
Gonzaga should know.
Before Friday’s showdown with Duke, the Bulldogs thumped two top-five opponents who were put on the schedule to boost Gonzaga’s RPI and infuse excitement into the early stages of the college basketball season that tend to be dull otherwise.
Gonzaga cruised to double-digit wins over No. 5 Texas and No. 2 UCLA, but the top-ranked Bulldogs had their hands full on Friday night at T-Mobile Arena, losing 84-81 to fifth-ranked Duke in a game that was tight from the first buzzer to the last.
“You saw two of the best shot-blockers in the country protect the basket for their team and you still had 80 points from each team,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “It was a big time game. Just s big time game.”
Here are our three takeaways from Gonzaga’s finale in Vegas.
Before their teams scrapped for 40 minutes, trading blow after blow in front of 20,398 fans – the largest basketball crowd in Nevada state history – Duke Krzyzewski and Gonzaga’s Mark Few met at half court for a long embrace.
When the final buzzer sounded, the coaches shared another moment near the middle of the court as their players went through the handshake line.
“It’s great to compete against him because you have the utmost – I don’t have highest respect for anyone in our game,” Few said. “He’s the best, he’s the gold standard and you know what you’re going to be in a game like this and you know you’re going to have to have your team ready and your team’s going to have to be really tough and ready to fight.”
Krzyzewski and Few entered the season respectively ranked No. 1 and No. 15 in career wins among active coaches. It’s only a matter of time before Krzyzewski removes the “active” from his title, after announcing this offseason he’d retire at the end of the 2021-22 campaign.
The 74-year-old who’s coached 47 years at both Duke and Army has left a lasting imprint on the college basketball world and many of his peers, Few among them.
“In regards to coach K, literally we’ve modeled our program after his,” Few said. “We’ve always asked over the years when we’ve had to make decisions on anything, on how we travel, how we operate, how we schedule, facility wise, my first question is always, ‘Well, what’s Duke doing?’ I don’t think I can pay any higher respect than that.”
The sentiment goes both ways. Krzyzewski commended Few in his postgame press conference, telling reporters Gonzaga was among the best transition teams Duke had played – an area the Blue Devils excelled in Friday night, scoring 15 fast break points.
“Mark and I are very, very close friend and their team advances the ball, pushes it up the court faster than anyone we’ve competed against for a long time,” Krzyzewski said. “I can’t even remember.”
Banchero praises Holmgren
On one of the game’s first possessions, Duke freshman Paolo Banchero drove through the chest of Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren and finished at the basket for a layup.
Later on, Banchero had a different experience with Holmgren at the rim – one many of Gonzaga’s opponents have become familiar with facing the Bulldogs’ long 7-footer. Trying a similar move, Banchero drove against Holmgren but this time the Gonzaga freshman was able to deny the shot, redirecting the ball to teammate Rasir Bolton.
Banchero had plenty of moments in Duke’s three-point win, most of them coming in the first half when the Seattle native poured in 20 points to help the Blue Devils establish a 45-42 lead. He finished with 21 points and five rebounds in 30 minutes, spending a chunk of the second half in Duke’s locker room receiving IV treatment for cramps.
Holmgren did most of his work late, scoring 10 of his 16 points in the second half. He also had five rebounds and two blocks after halftime. The Minnesota native is now averaging 13.6 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 3.4 blocks through his first seven college games.
“Chet’s a great player, we played against each other before,” Banchero said. “I think he played well, he made some tough shots. Obviously he’s a game-changer on defense. I had a couple of layups that usually against anybody else I would score, or it’d be a dunk, but because Chet’s down there I wasn’t able to finish.
“That’s an example of how he changes the game and he also brings a skill game on the offensive end so yeah, great player for sure.”
Mistakes prove costly
In a game where errors were at a premium, Gonzaga committed too many down the stretch, allowing Duke to control the lead down the stretch.
After Wendell Moore Jr. made two free throws to give Duke a 75-73 lead with 4:31 to play, Gonzaga endured three scoreless minutes that saw the Bulldogs miss three consecutive shots from the field, a one-and-one opportunity at the free throw line and turn the ball over on two occasions.
It could’ve been a defining period for Gonzaga, seeing as how Duke squandered its own chances during the same period. The Blue Devils missed three consecutive tries from distance and clanked two free throws before Trevor Keels finally made a free throw to give them a 76-73 lead.
Gonzaga still had time to do something with 19 seconds left, and Duke nursing an 83-79 lead, but 15 seconds elapsed before Rasir Bolton could throw up a 3-pointer and Holmgren’s putback layup to make it 83-81 came with :02 on the clock. Had the Bulldogs acted quicker on the possession, they may have had time for a more manageable 3-point buzzer beater, rather than Drew Timme’s full-court desperation fling.
“It just came down to they made one more play down the stretch,” Few said. “We weren’t as good as we usually are down the stretch of that game. We had a lot of missed opportunities and I think coach would also say the same thing, I don’t think they were quite as good as they usually are down the stretch of that game.
“They ended up making one more play and that was it.”
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