Auburn's Bruce Pearl on No. 1 Duke: 'We threatened them but they were never scared'
Mike Krzyzewski's Blue Devils beat No. 8 Auburn to advance to the Maui Invitational title game
LAHAINA, Hawaii -- With the way Mike Krzyzewski's top-ranked Duke Blue Devils had been rolling -- just overwhelming everybody placed in front of them, even the school ranked second in the preseason Associated Press poll -- folks were starting to wonder which team would finally test this amazing collection of talent for the first time.
We got our answer on Tuesday.
The answer was Auburn.
To be clear, Duke actually jumped to a big lead early, per usual, and was up by as many as 17 points in the first half. So I understand if some of you gave up on the game. But Auburn never stopped coming, never ceased fighting, and when Jared Harper sank a 3-pointer with 8:19 remaining, the Blue Devils found themselves ahead only 61-56 -- meaning Coach K and the rest of us here at the Lahaina Civic Center would finally have a chance to see how Duke's freshmen would respond to real game-pressure.
"I feel like we handled it really well," said Tre Jones -- and the freshman point guard could not have been more correct in his assessment. Because literally just 12 seconds after Harper cut Duke's lead to five, Cam Reddish, Jones' freshman teammate, buried a 3-pointer of his own to push Duke's lead back to 64-56.
"And I thought [that was] the biggest shot of the game," Krzyzewski said. "They hit their 3 to [cut it to] five, then he came down, and it wasn't called or anything, he just ... boom. He got us back to eight. That's a big-time play. I thought it was the play of the game."
Considering Auburn never got it back to a five-point game again, and considering Duke ultimately won 78-72 to advance to Wednesday's title game of the Maui Jim Maui Invitational, Reddish's shot probably was the play of the game.
It certainly impressed Bruce Pearl.
When Reddish's shot went down, the Auburn coach took a small break from being visibly frustrated by three officials who called 24 fouls on his team and only 13 on Duke. Pearl watched the ball go through the net, smiled and just shrugged his shoulders like you sometimes do when nothing's going your way.
"We threatened them," Pearl said, "but they were never scared."
And that's the biggest takeaway from Tuesday. Duke played an opponent that returned six of the top eight scorers from a team that shared the SEC regular-season title last season, an opponent that's currently ranked No. 8 in the Associated Press poll, an opponent that got 10 3-pointers from its starting backcourt, and never for a second did it feel like the Blue Devils were going to lose even though freshman star Zion Williamson was so frustrated that Krzyzewski had to remind him to "smile and have fun."
"He wasn't himself today," Krzyzewski said.
And yet Duke won anyway.
So now the Blue Devils are 5-0 with an average margin of victory of 25.2 points -- and some are whispering about a possible undefeated season. On that topic, I won't say it's impossible because it's technically not impossible. But it is highly improbable -- if only because Duke still has 13 regular-season games to play against teams currently rated in the top 25 at KenPom -- starting Wednesday with Gonzaga, which is ranked third in the AP poll -- and five of those 12 games will be true road games. The Blue Devils have to go to Virginia. The Blue Devils have to go to North Carolina.
Odds are, they'll get caught somewhere.
Probably multiple somewheres.
"We're gonna get beat," Krzyzewski said casually, but matter-of-factly. "You can get beat [while playing] well [in the ACC]."
I could not agree more.
But what does seem true -- and even more true after this six-point win than it's seemed after any of Duke's previous blowouts -- is that the Blue Devils will go down easily for nobody. Duke's freshmen were tested for the first time Tuesday. They responded brilliantly.
They were threatened.
But they were never scared.
"It's a special group," Pearl said. "They're really good. And they know they're good."
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