Gonzaga found itself in the same position as Duke’s first five opponents: appearing helpless as the Blue Devils and their rim-rattling freshmen ran past and flew over them.
The Zags never panicked, never looked up in awe at the bouncy Blue Devils. They have too much experience to get rattled, even against college basketball’s most talked-about team.
Playing with poise and grit down the stretch, No. 3 Gonzaga turned back top-ranked Duke’s late-game charge to win the Maui Invitational title game 89-97 on Wednesday.
“Experience plays a big role in this,” said Gonzaga guard Zach Norvell Jr., who had 18 points. “We came down the stretch and got some stops. We knew we were winning it on the defensive end.”
Gonzaga (6-0) put on an offensive show in the first half and battened down on defense after Duke made a second-half charge, blocking four shots in the final 46 seconds to win its second Maui title.
Rui Hachimura scored 20 points and the Zags beat a No. 1 team for the first time while ending the Blue Devils’ unbeaten streak on the Valley Isle (17-1).
Dubbed a Final Four contender when Killie Tillie returns, Gonzaga already looks like one — even with one of their best players on the bench in a walking boot.
“The lights were on us tonight and we played good, which you have to against Duke,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “You have to pretty much play great. I thought we played great.”
Five-time Maui champion Duke (5-1) made it look easy the season’s first five games, its fantastic freshmen soaring through the spotlight, not cowering away from it while looking all but unbeatable.
The experienced Zags gave them a lesson in ball movement, orchestrating a master class in free-flowing, position-less basketball while building a 14-point first-half lead.
Duke’s Maui run, done.
Well, not just yet.
The Blue Devils fell behind by 16 in the second half before firing up the Blue Devil express with a series of head-above-the-rim dunks and drives.
Taking advantage of Gonzaga big man Brandon Clarke’s fourth foul, Duke pulled within a basket as Blue Devils fans sent an earthquake of noise off the rafters of tiny Lahaina Civic Center.
Hachimura put Gonzaga up 89-87 with a strong move at the basket with 75 seconds left, but the Zags kept giving Duke chances by missing four free throws. Clarke clanked two with 30 seconds left and Hachimura came up empty on two more with 10 seconds left.
Gonzaga’s defense made up for it.
Hachimuru and Clarke each had two blocked shots in the final minute, capped by Clarke’s swat of R.J. Barrett’s driving attempt at the buzzer.
A seated Barrett raised his arms, wondering why no foul was called. The Zags leaped in celebration after a game with a Final Four feel packaged in a small-town rec center.
Barrett had 23 points and Zion Williamson scored 22 for the suddenly humbled Blue Devils.
“We finally started to fight in the last 14 minutes, whereas before we had just come to play and we weren’t as emotionally ready as Gonzaga,” said Duke’s Javin DeLaurier, who had six points and six rebounds.
This was the game everyone expected when the Maui Invitational got another marquee title game between the what-will-they-do-next Blue Devils against the electrically efficient Zags.
Duke and its future lottery picks steamrolled San Diego State and outlasted No. 8 Auburn to reach its sixth Maui title game in six years. Gonzaga survived Illinois’ frenetic attack and put on a second-half show to beat Arizona in the semifinals.
The Blue Devils ran roughshod over one top-5 team to open the season, making then-No. 2 Kentucky look like a JV team.
The Zags not only didn’t back down, they threw the first punch.
Forcing Duke defenders through one ball screen after another, Gonzaga played the position-less basketball game better than the Blue Devils. The Zags all but took Duke big man Marques Bolden, who had seven blocked shots in the semifinals, out of the game with their ball movement and created numerous open looks for themselves.
“They were just dictating the flow,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “I mean we were not playing good defense, but they were playing great offense.”
When Clarke went to the bench with his fourth foul midway through the second half, Gonzaga went into a stall. Duke put together a run, a sixth Maui title within reach.
The Zags swatted Duke’s bid away.