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Gonzaga can take lessons from Duke loss

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

It all came down to one more play.

That’s what Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said after Duke handed the Bulldogs their first loss of the season with an 84-81 result on Friday at T-Mobile Arena. It was quite a way to get that first blemish on their record.

“It came down to one more play down the stretch,” Few said. “We weren’t as good as we usually are down the stretch. We had a lot of missed opportunities.”

A loss is never desired, but Gonzaga can turn this one into a good learning experience. Duke was the Bulldogs’ third ranked opponent this month and certainly the most challenging one.

Last season, the Zags’ only loss came against the Baylor Bears during the NCAA Championship game. That game exposed Gonzaga’s biggest weakness at the time: physicality. On Friday, the Blue Devils played physical basketball and gave Gonzaga a hard time from the beginning.

Few said the result could really benefit his team in the long run.

“I think there’s tons and tons of positives you can draw out of that” he said. “Their transition game was equal to ours, and we haven’t run into many transition games that are equal to ours. Their physicality was equal to ours.”

The game was close up until the last minute, which should be a good learning experience for Gonzaga when it comes to playing with more urgency and finishing better. Even though it’s only November, the atmosphere was powerful with a crowd of 20,389, the largest for a college basketball game in Nevada history.

“It felt like a Final Four type game,” Gonzaga forward Drew Timme said. “The atmosphere was great, and it was two Goliaths going at it.”

Timme said his team came out flat, while the Blue Devils came out a little stronger. One particular player came out with a big punch. Duke forward Paolo Banchero scored 20 points in the first 20 minutes of the game. He only scored one point in the second period, but this was due to dealing with cramps and having to receive an IV in the locker room.

Each team had three-players score in double digits. For Gonzaga, it was Julian Strawther who led the team with a double double of 20 points and 10 rebounds. Headlines usually mention freshman Chet Holmgren or Timme, but Strawther was the player with whom Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was most impressed.

“The kid Strawther, big time,” Krzyzewski said. ”He is a key guy for them. We thought he was good, he was better.”

That is not to say Timme and Holmgren didn’t contribute. They added 16 and 17 points, respectively. Timme is Gonzaga’s most consistent scorer this season, averaging 18.4 points per game.

Holmgren is still developing on the offensive side of the ball, although he is already averaging 13.6 points per game while shooting at an impressive 69.1% from the field. The 7-footer is a strong defensive tool for the Zags. He had a couple of big blocks, including one on Banchero, who is one of the players on everyone’s radar for the 2022 NBA Draft.

The 81 points Gonzaga scored was the fewest it scored in a game this season. Duke was aggressive and had terrific one-on-one defense that disrupted the Bulldogs’ offense.

Gonzaga struggled to take care of the ball and had 17 turnovers.

The Zags constantly dominated their other games this season, trailing for less than five minutes against Texas, Alcorn State, Bellarmine and UCLA combined. By contrast, Duke held the lead for 27 minutes.

“We felt like we had a chance to win that game at the end, and it was self-inflicted,” Timme said. “We’re a young team and still learning every day. We haven’t even got close to conference yet. We’re going to take the challenge, and we’re excited for rest of the season.”