LAHAINA, Hawaii — When the thriller ended Wednesday and the action stopped and the witnesses tried to compute the details of the game they’d just watched, one question lingered in the aftermath of No. 3 Gonzaga’s 89-87 win over No. 1 Duke in the Maui Invitational title game.
Can we do it again?
Can we pull the teams off the beaches of Maui and ask their families for two hours of their time to run it back on Thanksgiving Day? And if that’s too much of an ask for the gracious organizers of this event, should we pencil this rematch into a slot at the Final Four in Minneapolis five months from now?
Because every element of Wednesday’s matchup felt like a national championship game. Like the national title game.
November is a liar. Some teams that notch signature wins early improve as the season progresses. For others, those wins become the benchmark for their downfalls. And a meeting in late November is rarely an accurate indicator of a team’s true standing. Gonzaga, which will face Tennessee and North Carolina before West Coast Conference play begins, will likely command a No. 1 spot in the major polls next week. But Duke could regain that slot in the coming months, too.
We’re sure, however, we just watched two of the most talented teams in America, and a rematch at U.S. Bank Stadium in April is a fair expectation after Wednesday’s matchup, the best game of the 2018-19 season thus far.
“It was just a fantastic game and you just, you just got to love this tournament,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “Love this place, I love Maui, and it’s just been an awesome, awesome experience for our team and our fans and everybody involved with our program. But what a basketball game. Duke is everything that we thought they were and probably even a little bit more. They got no quit in them. Those are really, really talented, high character, tough dudes to stop and they made a heck of a run.”
On Monday, the basketball court in the Lahaina Civic Center was noticeably slippery. Dave Odom, the longtime chairman of the Maui Invite, seemed frustrated by the problem. One of the air conditioning units in the building had malfunctioned and as the warm air poured into the building every time someone opened the door, the court became a sauna full of wet spots.
Odom asked his staff to work late Monday night to address the problem and the floor was much better on Tuesday. The air conditioning unit had been repaired. The ball boys and girls were relentless in cleaning up spots every time someone slipped. Problem fixed.
During Wednesday’s Gonzaga-Duke game, however, the floor was slippery again. Dozens of spectators had lined the walls and blocked the exits of the building, which was packed with a sold-out crowd.
Did they have tickets? Were they employees? VIPs? That’s unclear but the extra bodies who’d squeezed into the facility to see Duke and Gonzaga battle had reintroduced the humidity that plagued the floors on Monday.
It was a fitting, frenzied scene for a game that represented every component of college basketball’s beauty.
The traditionalists who believe the one-and-done culture has corrupted the game could cheer for a Gonzaga team that started three upperclassmen and two sophomores. And Duke’s four freshmen had already become the focus of a national conversation about whether the Blue Devils could compete with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The youth versus experience factor was secondary to the amount of talent on the floor, though. Zion Williamson, Cam Reddish and RJ Barrett brought multiple NBA executives to Maui this week. Rui Hachimura, a projected lottery pick who scored 20 points in the Maui Invite title game, raised his stock, too. Tre Jones, perhaps an afterthought before his stunning effort in the title game, “has grown on me,” one NBA scout said.
Down 89-87 in the final minute to Gonzaga, Duke’s roster of stars can’t convert on 7 field goal attempts, including RJ Barrett’s last-second layup attempt.
Duke’s previous top-10 matchups — a 34-point win over Kentucky in the Champions Classic and a six-point victory over Auburn on Tuesday in Maui — were not competitive. Many expected the same outcome against Gonzaga. Instead, the Blue Devils faced their toughest game of the season.
We had Few against Mike Krzyzewski, two of the greatest coaches in college basketball history. We had a pair of recognizable brands with legit rosters.
Gonzaga carried a double-digit lead into the second half. Hachimura looked like a pro throughout the matchup. Brandon Clarke had big blocks and dunks. Josh Perkins stayed calm and ran the show even when it appeared it might crumble. Barrett, Williamson and Jones — “He plays like he’s 30,” Few said after game — refused to yield.
And then, when Duke had closed the gap and turned a blowout into the most entertaining finish of the year, there was trash talk. Well, a smirk, really.
After the game, Hachimura said he wanted to guard Barrett, who dunked on him in the second half, late. You could see him smiling when he got the opportunity in the final minute. Hachimura, in the middle of nationally televised game, was smiling as Barrett drove toward him.
“I think he switched on me and he was trying to play one-on-one against me, and I was like ‘OK, let’s do it,'” Hachimura said after the game. “We’re the best team in the country and I’m the best player too. I have to guard him.”
And that’s another reason we hope to see this again.
Gonzaga, which won without injured standout Killian Tillie, is the better team right now. Both teams, however, could make monumental strides between now and April.
In late November, Gonzaga and Duke haven’t settled anything. They’ve just made the folks who paused their Thanksgiving Day preparations to watch the game on TV and the spectators who resisted the allure of Maui’s beaches to stuff a quaint building in the middle of the Pacific Ocean want more.
“[Few has done] a marvelous job with his program,” Krzyzewski said. “And it’s an honor to play against him and their fan base, and it’s a great game for college basketball today. The fan base is there, the effort, and two outstanding programs. That was really good basketball today.”
Gonzaga and Duke staged a great game in Maui on Wednesday.
And if we’re lucky, it wasn’t their last encounter of the season.