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Gonzaga falls to Duke 84-81

The second big time matchup of the week doesn’t go the Zags’ way.

NCAA Basketball: Continental Tire Challenge-Duke at Gonzaga Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Gonzaga and Duke treated us to a barnburner of an early season college basketball game in Las Vegas. The matchup of two top five teams favored the Blue Devils in the end, but was still an entertaining, if stressful game to watch from tip to finish.

Much of the hype leading up to the game centered around the two standout freshmen, Chet Holmgren and Paolo Banchero. Chet had another solid all-around performance for the Zags, with 16 points, seven rebounds, and three blocksm but it was Banchero who was the star, leading all players with 21 points.

Virtually all of Banchero’s production came in the first half, where the three-point scoring margin didn’t totally replicate the feel of the game. Gonzaga probably considered themselves lucky to only be down three at the half, considering some shortcomings on both ends of the floor compared to their efforts vs. Texas and UCLA. Credit where it’s due to Duke’s defense, but the Zags were pretty stagnant on offense for much of the half, settling for a lot of deep jump shots that just weren’t falling. On the other side, the Zags’ defense wasn’t as tight as it has been in previous games.

Gonzaga fell dangerously close to letting the game slip away, but found some offensive rhythm late in the half, led especially by Rasir Bolton, who had 13 points (5-8 FG, 3-5 3PM) at the break.

The start of the second half was much better for GU. Julian Strawther scored the first five points of the period, en route to a career high 20 in front of his hometown. The Zags were, in general, much more crisp on offense in the second half, displaying some of their signature ball movement and off-ball action. They were able to get out in transition more as well, thanks in part to some improved defense.

The Zags caught a bit of a break when Banchero and Wendell Carter Jr. hit the bench with what looked like cramping issues, but not enough to pull away. Ultimately, Duke’s defense put them over the top. The Zags went roughly four minutes without a field goal late in the second, unable to capitalize on some of Duke’s own misses.

Despite the outcome, this was still an awesome game featuring two of the best teams, and some of the best players, in college basketball, in an electric atmosphere in Las Vegas, that will surely benefit the Zags going forward. Sign me up for a rematch in April.