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Duke edges Gonzaga in battle of top teams, potential top picks

Updated November 27, 2021 - 5:08 am

The traffic outside T-Mobile Arena on Friday night slowed to a crawl, and a sea of blue — navy and Duke blue — formed outside the venue hours before No. 1 Gonzaga played No. 5 Duke in the Continental Tire Challenge.

All the while, Gonzaga freshman Chet Holmgren and Duke freshman Paolo Banchero practiced shooting on the basketball court inside the empty venue they would later enthrall. The potential No. 1 NBA draft picks were well aware of the stakes that accompanied the first several presumptive showdowns between the two classmates.

But this one belonged to Banchero and the Blue Devils.

Banchero dazzled a crowd of 20,389 and helped Duke (7-0) to a signature victory, scoring 20 of his 21 in the first half en route to an 84-81 win over Gonzaga (6-1). The 6-foot-10-inch forward unveiled his entire offensive arsenal in the first 20 minutes, scoring via dribble drives and jumpers off the dribble and catch.

Cramps slowed his output in the second half, and teammate Wendell Moore Jr. played the role of closer — finishing with 20 points, six rebounds, six assists and four steals to clinch the event’s MVP honors.

Holmgren held his own and supplied 16 points, seven rebounds and three blocks.

“I never thought it was about Paolo and Chet,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “They’re two great players with great futures ahead of them. They’re both winners. And I think they’d probably tell you the same thing. It was never about that. I’m sure you’ll be seeing them guarding each other and playing against each other for the next 15, 18 years.”

Banchero and Holmgren have established themselves as the top prospects in the 2022 NBA draft — along with Auburn freshman wing Jabari Smith and former Coronado star turned G League Ignite guard Jaden Hardy. The matchup at T-Mobile Arena on Friday provided prognosticators and fans an early look at the two wunderkinds.

Holmgren stands 7 feet with a 7-6 wingspan, and could be a generational defensive player at the next level. Banchero could be a generational offensive player, though, and didn’t have any qualms about attacking him.

Especially in the first half.

Holmgren guarded Banchero in the early going, a rarity these days among potential top picks. Banchero drove right through him for an old-fashioned 3-point play to draw Holmgren’s second foul, triggering a virtuoso stretch for the Seattle native.

Banchero led a fast break and lofted a lob to sophomore center Mark Williams, who finished with 17 points, nine rebounds and five blocks. Banchero followed with a triple and drove for a dunk — showcasing his jumper, handle and physicality over the course of 20 minutes.

Holmgren awoke, though, in the second half as Banchero battled cramps, and patrolled the paint — blocking Banchero on an early possession. He operated mostly from the dunker’s spot and finished layups, dunks and short jumpers around the basket, though he occasionally flashed his uncanny handle by bringing the ball up the floor.

It certainly wasn’t his finest showing, but he, too, flashed his rare skill at his size.

“Chet is a great player. I think he played well. He made some tough shots,” Banchero said. “Obviously he’s a game changer on defense. … He also brings a skilled game on the offense end as well. Great player for sure.”

Former Liberty star turned Gonzaga sophomore wing Julian Strawther led the Bulldogs with 20 points. But the Blue Devils were better down the stretch.

“How about that crowd? I would say college basketball is in great shape,” Few said. “Kudos to Vegas and kudos to the whole thing for how it was put on.”

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski seemed to agree.

“Having this type of crowd was amazing,” he said. “It was really a player’s game. A player’s game.”

Contact reporter Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

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