The top-ranked Duke Blue Devils finally looked mortal Wednesday when the No. 3 Gonzaga Bulldogs handed them their first loss of the season, 89-87, in the 2018 Maui Invitational finals.
Duke showed some cracks in the foundation on Tuesday with a 78-72 win over No. 8 Auburn. The 24-hour turnaround didn't do head coach Mike Krzyzewski's squad any favors against another Top 10 opponent.
The Bulldogs had to hold on for dear life after blowing a 16-point second-half lead. After Duke tied the score at 87 with 1:45 remaining, Rui Hachimura's layup on Gonzaga's ensuing possession turned out to be the final points in the game.
Hachimura was excellent for Gonzaga with 20 points, seven rebounds, five assists and three blocks. This marked his third straight game scoring at least 20 points.
Freshman phenoms Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett combined to score 45 points in the Blue Devils' loss. Barrett had a chance to tie the game on the final possession, but his layup attempt was blocked by Brandon Clarke as time expired.
Duke's Maui Struggles Exactly What Young Team Needs in the Long Run
After an impressive early-season win, it's always tempting to fall into the trap of talking about the prospect of a team's going undefeated.
One day after the Blue Devils' season-opening 118-84 win over Kentucky, USA Today's Scott Gleeson wrote, "The possibility of an unbeaten season is worth discussing."
Even when they weren't playing up to their full potential—like Tuesday's game against Auburn in which they shot 44.4 percent and had more turnovers (13) than assists (12)—the Blue Devils were always playing in front until this loss:
There's a reason no team in Division I men's basketball has gone undefeated since the 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers: It's really difficult to do, especially when teams play up to 40 games in a season.
Wednesday's performance against Gonzaga proved this Duke squad isn't perfect, but that doesn't have to be a bad thing. The benefit of a college basketball season is teams are able to evolve and grow without fear that one loss will knock them out of tournament consideration.
Duke's star-studded freshmen have been able to coast on a lot of goodwill because of their spectacular playmaking skills, though there were criticisms of their game coming into college that needed to be answered.
Per MassLive.com's Tom Westerholm, the major knocks against Williamson revolved around his shooting ability and effort on defense.
Since starting the season connecting on 82.1 percent of his shot attempts in the first three games, Williamson is at 47.2 percent in the past three games.
Barrett has now shot under 40 percent from the field in each of the past four games after going 9-of-25 against Gonzaga.
Being unable to create shots has also been a problem in the past two games for Duke. Coach K's team had more turnovers (10) than assists (nine) against Gonzaga, just as it did Tuesday against Auburn.
Even with all of these problems, the Blue Devils still tied the game and had a chance to tie it again at the end.
Wednesday's loss doesn't mean it's time to throw in the towel on these Blue Devils, but it did send them a clear message that their raw talent is only going to carry them so far when there is another great team on the other side of the court.
Elite Shooting Makes Gonzaga Nation's Most Dangerous Team
To say Gonzaga passed its first true test of the season with flying colors would be an understatement. Head coach Mark Few's team, at one point carrying a 55-39 lead in the second half, looked like the most dominant squad in the nation.
The Bulldogs were able to take such a huge lead essentially by preventing Duke from doing what it does best and not being intimidated by their opponent's star power:
Eventually, Gonzaga slowed down because the Blue Devils started playing faster on offense and were able to play in transition by forcing 11 turnovers.
But it shouldn't be understated how good Gonzaga's offense is this season.
Per KenPom stats, the Bulldogs entered Wednesday's game ranked fifth in adjusted offense. They took down Duke by playing a near-perfect offensive game for the first 30 minutes and finished with a 52.3 shooting percentage, including 10-of-19 from three-point range to hit their magic mark for success.
There were areas of the offense that Gonzaga must clean up to avoid another tournament letdown. For instance, the Blue Devils had a chance to tie the game on the final possession because Clarke and Hachimura missed four straight free throws in the last 30 seconds.
Yet even when the Bulldogs could have shown their frustration with lackadaisical defense following those missed free throws, they showed up in a big way at the end of the game.
Gonzaga's victory over Duke showed it is capable of scoring with anyone in the nation. This is a deep group with seven players shooting at least 46 percent from the field entering Wednesday's game. They have experience as three of the top four scorers—Clarke, Hachimura and Josh Perkins—are upperclassmen.
Few's teams have a reputation of being a disappointment in the NCAA tournament with just one Final Four appearance in the past 19 seasons. Those questions won't go away this year until we get to March, but the talent is there for this Gonzaga squad to win a national championship.
Duke has an extended layoff until a Nov. 27 home game against the Indiana Hoosiers in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge at 9:30 p.m. ET. Gonzaga will be back in action when it hosts the North Dakota State Bison on Nov. 26 at 9 p.m. ET.