“I love this tournament, I love this place, I love Maui,” expressed a jubilant Mark Few after Gonzaga claimed its second title at the Maui Invitational following a thrilling 89-87 win over the Duke Blue Devils. The loss was a first for Duke in Maui, who had been 17-0 with five titles going into the final at this event.
It was the matchup every college basketball fan was hoping for, and it delivered on all counts. No. 1 Duke and its heralded freshmen got top billing heading into the tournament, but the Blue Devils discovered an opponent in Gonzaga that was ready and able to meet the challenge.
“We’re the best team in the country, and I’m the best player in the country,” remarked Rui Hachimura just moments after being named the Maui Invitational MVP. It was a confident statement that his head coach was more than happy to hear.
Rui: "We're the best team in the country, and I'm the best player in the country"— Keith Ybanez (@slipperyky) November 22, 2018
Few: "Amen brother, now you're getting it"
The Gonzaga coaching staff has worked tirelessly to convince Hachimura, a naturally deferential young man and athlete, about how good he really is. Fortunately for the Zags, that message finally appears to be sinking in.
The Zags wasted no time in showing how ready they were for this marquee match, landing the early blows against a heavily hyped Duke team and beating it at its own game. The two teams exchanged for most of the first 10 minutes, but Gonzaga was able to dictate the tempo and forced Coach K to adjust his lineups as the Zags exposed the Duke interior.
After trailing for only 35 seconds total in its previous five games, Duke led for only 12 seconds against a Gonzaga team that was more “emotionally ready,” as Coach K described it. Even in an area where Duke had been dominant throughout this young season, the transition game, it was the Zags who were experiencing more success in the open floor during the first half.
Williamson and Barrett combined for 21 first-half points, but the other “Beatle” in Cam Reddish only had two points, and none of those points for the trio came very easily. Forced into playing in its halfcourt offense more frequently, Duke was finding the lane well-defended with the highlight reel dunks that had been making their way onto SportsCenter nowhere to be found.
Gonzaga took a 47-39 lead into halftime, and then continued to build on it after the break, pushing its advantage as high as 16 points with 17 minutes left in the game. Foul trouble, however, began to take its toll on the Zag with the frontcourt in particular feeling the sting. Brandon Clarke was a dynamo in the paint, but his 4th foul near the 12 minute mark of the second half sent him to the bench and put Gonzaga in a precarious position with Duke desperate to mount a comeback.
The Zags continued to battle without their defensive anchor, maintaining its double digit lead over the next five minutes and holding off every Duke mini-run. But Duke’s big push finally came as the Zags began to tire, with Barrett and Williamson converting dunks to trim the deficit to two points with just under four minutes left.
The final four minutes highlighted the tremendous talent on both of those teams, but it was Gonzaga’s experience and maturity that won the game. Stout defensive stands in the final minute, including four combined blocks from Clarke and Hachimura allowed the Zags to preserve their narrow 2-point margin. A final block at the buzzer from Clarke sealed the win, and let the rest of the college basketball world know who should be considered the best team in the country.