So, it can be done. The college basketball world spent the first two weeks of the season with its mouth agape at the unstoppable force Duke had created by landing the top three freshmen in the class of 2018, and now, with an 89–87 win in an instant classic of a Maui Invitational final, Gonzaga has proved that the Blue Devils can be beaten. The formula, when you lay it out all at once, is quite simple.
You need to shoot 52.3% from the field. You need a lineup that blends fearless youth (for the purposes of this exercise, sophomore swingmen Zach Norvell Jr. and Corey Kispert count as youth in Mark Few's diverse roster) with world-weary upperclassmen. You need a National Player of the Year candidate like forward Rui Hachimura, and other smart, athletic bigs like Brandon Clarke and Flip Petrusev, who can expose veteran center Marques Bolden's deficiencies in ball screen decision-making, knock down shots when left alone away from the basket and body up Duke's drivers. You need a point guard who not only is capable of making passes with a high degree of difficulty but also seeks those passes out, as Gonzaga's Josh Perkins does even against opponents with less daunting defenses. And, crucially, you need to play smart in crunch time, when the Blue Devils' athleticism should be enough to vaporize 95% of their opponents' depth and the officials could be forgiven for tilting the foul distribution in Duke's favor.
Few teams in the country have even one of those ingredients. (And then there are squads like Virginia and Syracuse who will draw from a polar opposite philosophy and attempt to jam Duke's gears when ACC play arrives.) But Gonzaga laid out the blueprint and stood tall late as R.J. Barrett took the Blue Devils' unbeaten record into his own hands and was rebuffed at every turn.
After Gonzaga led nearly wire-to-wire, building a 16-point advantage in the second half (Duke's largest deficit entering Wednesday: two), Duke's inevitable push set the stage for a final sequence befitting two Final Four frontrunners. Barrett, the consensus No. 1 recruit in the 2018 freshman class, took the shot at the end of five possessions in the final minute that would have either tied the game or given Duke the lead, and none fell. Hachimura, who pulled down Jack White's missed follow-up with 10.6 seconds left, missed both free throws and immediately redeemed himself when he stepped up and went straight up to deny Barrett at the buzzer.
Hachimura was the afternoon's breakout star, finishing with 20 points, seven rebounds, five assists and three blocks in an emotional effort that should make him the biggest star in the western half of the country. Norvell, who missed his first nine shots in the semifinals against Arizona and then exploded for 20 points in the second half to save the Bulldogs, finished with 18 points thanks to a 4-for-7 performance from beyond the arc and providing a highlight to match Duke's ever-expanding reel when he blew by Barrett and uncorked a circus lefty lay-in in the first half.
Zion Williamson and his 6'7", 285-pound frame remain an unsolvable problem early in the shot clock or when the Blue Devils are on the run, but Gonzaga's halfcourt defense supplied the active hands and unflinching contact to make the freshman uncomfortable in traffic, with a big assist from Hachimura's length.
The moment Duke was supposed to take over in the early stages of this heavyweight clash came and went with a clang. With Gonzaga protecting a 17–15 lead, Blue Devils point guard Tre Jones pounced on a loose ball and glided the other way for a Tomahawk slam that would have set the Lahaina Civic Center shaking. But Jones's dunk caught back iron—hard—and caromed all the way to midcourt, where Perkins collected it and fed Clarke for a layup.
Pushed to the limit in the second half, Duke's freshmen visibly emptied the tank: Jones brought the Duke end of the stands to life with a layup-steal combo early in the second half and cut the lead to one for the first time since midway through the first half with back-to-back buckets in the final three minutes. Williamson needed a few minutes to adjust to the talent that greeted him inside but ultimately emerged as Duke's emotional engine.
But not every Blue Devil freshman responded to that pressure positively. Sharpshooting wing Cam Reddish did not meet the level of the other three of the top four freshmen, missing his first three shots of the game, disappearing for long stretches and eventually sitting on the bench for a large chunk of crunch time. Barrett finished with a game-high 23 points but needed a whopping 25 shots to get there, and his heroball in the final minute can't possibly be the only option on a team with so many weapons.
Duke may not lose again, or it may not lose until April in Minneapolis when it meets Gonzaga again or another inner-circle national title contender in the Final Four, or it may lose to Indiana and dynamic freshman Romeo Langford on Tuesday night. Its obvious dominance of its first five opponents was undoubtedly good for college basketball, but Wednesday's failed stress test imposed by an opponent that didn't blink in the face of the hype was a sign that the fun is only just getting started.