Friday night's showdown between No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 5 Duke delivered in a big way as the Blue Devils topped the Bulldogs 84-81 in a battle of two national title contenders with rosters headlined by the sport's top freshmen at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. In the end, it was the play of a veteran that helped lead the Blue Devils to their second victory over a top-10 opponent this season.
Junior forward Wendell Moore Jr. scored 16 of his 20 points in the second half and made seven of his last eight free throw attempts to help Duke outlast a Gonzaga team which had looked nearly invincible in a 20-point win over No. 2 UCLA on Tuesday night, took its first loss of the season and its first regular-season defeat since a 91-78 loss Feb. 22, 2020 at BYU.
A crowd of 20,389 -- the largest to ever see a basketball game in Nevada -- added a palpable sense of tension to the meeting, which featured No. 1 ranked freshman Chet Holmgren of Gonzaga taking on No. 2 ranked freshman Paolo Banchero of Duke. Banchero was the story of the first half, as he scored 20 of his 21 points before halftime. But he left the game with 14:11 remaining in the second half while dealing with apparent cramps and did not return until the 8:25 mark.
Mark Williams and Moore helped carry the load in his absence. Williams scored 17 for Duke (7-0) and pulled down a team-high nine rebounds while battling Holmgren and Gonzaga star Drew Timme in the post. Julian Strawther continued a strong start to his sophomore season for the Zags (6-1) by finishing with 20 points and 10 rebounds for his second double-double of the season. Timme added 17 and Holmgren scored 16. But it was the Blue Devils who emerged with a marquee victory as 42nd-year coach Mike Krzyzewski notched his seventh win over a No. 1 ranked foe.
Duke should be No. 1
With Duke's win over Gonzaga, three of the top-five teams in this week's AP Top 25 poll have taken losses in the last few days. That means the Blue Devils should reach No. 1 on Monday when a new poll is released. The only other team with a case for the top spot would be a Purdue squad with wins over North Carolina and No. 7 Villanova. But Duke's resume is more impressive. The Blue Devils have knocked off No. 10 Kentucky and now have the best win of the season in college basketball by knocking off the Zags.
Gonzaga wasn't simply riding the coattails of last season's success. The Bulldogs had earned their ranking with wins over No. 8 Texas and by crushing the No. 2 Bruins on Tuesday. This Duke team, which didn't even make last year's NCAA Tournament, looks like the clear cut ACC favorite and potential Final Four team. If they do reach No. 1, it will be 20th team in Krzyzewski's 42-year tenure to reach that summit.
Banchero's bout with cramps took him off the floor for a crucial stretch of the second half and appeared to limit him upon his re-entry for the game's closing stretch. But he showed why he is the potential No. 1 pick in the 2022 NBA Draft during the first half. The 6-foot-9 forward hit 8 of 13 shots from the field in the first half, including three 3-pointers.
One sequence in the middle of the first half was particularly emblematic of Banchero's all-around game. After pulling down a rebound following a miss by Timme, Banchero led a Duke fast break and lobbed to Mark Williams for a dunk. On the following Duke possession, Banchero took a pass from Trevor Keels in transition and drilled a 3-pointer from the left wing that gave Duke its largest lead of the game at 27-18. Banchero can do it all, and Friday's game was merely the latest reminder as he has now reached double figures in each of his first seven college games.
Holmgren is no slouch
An NBA general manager torn over who they might select at No. 1 overall in the 2022 NBA Draft might have left Friday night's game more impressed with Banchero. But it's not as if Holmgren disappointed. The 7-footer finished with 16 points, seven rebounds and three blocks, although he did miss on all three of his 3-point attempts. Williams was also able to exploit Holmgren's thin frame at times, but it's no secret that Holmgren needs to add bulk to his frame in the years to come.
If there were any questions about if Holmgren's conditioning or athleticism would hold up in a game involving elite athletes played at a frenetic pace, he answered those by looking composed and comfortable in his role. Holmgren and Banchero are distinctly different players with Banchero providing more positional versatility. Holmgren, on the other hand, is a true modern center. In just seven games, he's already blocked more shots (24) than anyone on Gonzaga's roster did in 32 games last season. Banchero may have gotten the best of him Friday, but don't be surprised if Holmgren is still first in the eyes of some NBA teams in need of a modern center in next year's draft.