Paolo Banchero, No. 5 Duke knock off No. 1 Gonzaga in thrilling battle

The battle between the two best players in college basketball, and perhaps the sport’s two best teams, didn’t disappoint late on Friday night.

If we’re lucky, the contest in Las Vegas was just a preview of what will make for a tremendous deep NCAA tournament battle come March.

Potential top draft pick Paolo Banchero and No. 5 Duke held on to knock off top-ranked Gonzaga 84-81 at T-Mobile Arena on Friday night to conclude the Continental Tire Challenge.

Duke, after handing Gonzaga its first loss of the season, will now enter the Big Ten-ACC Challenge with a perfect record and several notable wins under its belt already — marking a great start to coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final season with the Blue Devils.

Gonzaga forward Chet Holmgren boxes out Duke Blue Devils forward Paolo Banchero
Paulo Banchero, left, and No. 5 Duke knocked off Chet Holmren, right, and No. 1 Gonzaga on Friday night in Las Vegas. (Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images)

Duke holds on to top Gonzaga in wild battle

Banchero dropped 20 of his 21 points in the first half while shooting 8-of-13 from the field and 3-of-6 from behind the arc in the opening 20 minutes. The Blue Devils mounted several solid runs and broke out to a nine-point lead at one point, but Gonzaga ended the half on a 5-0 outburst on jumpers from Chet Holmgren and Julian Strawther to cut Duke’s lead to just three at the break.

Though the final run helped, Gonzaga went just 4-of-13 from behind the arc in the first half and had four players — including Holmgren and Drew Timme — with two fouls each at halftime.

The Bulldogs took their first lead since the opening minutes of the game just minutes into the second half after Timme drew a foul attacking the rim on what looked like an incredibly clean block by Duke center Mark Williams.

Just minutes later, though, Banchero left the contest with what looked like cramping issues — which the Bulldogs took full advantage of. They took a four-point lead and outscored Duke by seven by the time Banchero checked back in with just more than eight minutes left.

Though Banchero didn’t look the same when he returned after receiving an IV in the locker room — he was seen several times limping and fighting through cramps, and scored just a single point in the second half — Duke pulled back ahead by three with about 90 seconds left after a 7-0 run over a nearly three-minute span.

Timme hit Holmgren with a huge assist to cut that back to just a single point, but then Jeremy Roach answered with just his second bucket of the night on a wild contested layup to maintain the three-point advantage.

From there, Duke held Gonzaga to just a single field goal and hit a few free throws in the final seconds to claim the two-point win — its biggest of the season by far.

Wendell Moore Jr. added 20 points to go with Banchero’s 21 points to lead Duke in the win, and Williams finished with 17 points and nine rebounds. They were the only three Blue Devils to score in double figures. Duke went just 7-of-23 from behind the arc, though that was better than Gonzaga’s 6-of-21 from the same range.

Strawther led the Bulldogs with 20 points and 10 rebounds, and Timme added 17 points while shooting 7-of-13 from the field.

Duke will head next to the Schottenstein Center for a matchup with Ohio State in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge on Tuesday, the first of four nonconference games left on the Blue Devils’ schedule before conference play kicks off in about a month. Gonzaga will host Tarleton State on Monday before a top-10 battle with Alabama next weekend.

Though March is still a long way off, both teams made quite the statement on Friday night in Las Vegas.