Two nights after rallying from a 16-point second-half deficit to edge Texas, Duke staged an even bigger comeback against an even better team.
This time the top-ranked Blue Devils stormed back from 17 down to stun seventh-ranked Florida 87-84 in the title game of their half of the PK80 Invitational.
Whereas Marvin Bagley was the driving force behind Friday’s late surge to thwart the Longhorns’ upset bid, the prized freshman forward wasn’t so much of a one-man show on Sunday against the Gators. Bagley produced another monster stat line with 30 points and 15 rebounds, but he had a lot of help in leading Duke back from 17 down midway through the second half and 10 down with five minutes to play.
Trevon Duval started Duke’s rally in the most unusual fashion, a corner 3-pointer to halt a 13-0 Florida second-half spurt. The freshman point guard had been 2-for-22 from behind the arc before that shot, such an anemic percentage that Florida had been sagging off him and daring him to shoot.
Grayson Allen sank the most critical of his four 3-pointers with just over three minutes to play to cut Duke’s six-point deficit in half and put real game pressure on Florida for the first time. It was the only basket of the second half for Duke’s senior captain, and it came at an ideal time.
Duval and fellow freshman guard Gary Trent Jr. both had key steals, one at the expense of Florida point guard Chris Chiozza and the other coming after Gators wing Jalen Hudson over-dribbled. Trent sank four free throws after those steals, the first two giving Duke its first lead and the next two extending that advantage to three.
Florida still had one more chance to extend the game to overtime, but Chiozza’s attempt to kick to a shooter resulted in a heavily contested shot. Egor Koulechov’s off-balance 3-pointer fell well short, ending the Gators’ upset hopes and sending the Duke bench spilling onto the floor in celebration of a championship that seemed improbable, if not impossible, moments earlier.
That Duke managed to dig out of another huge hole is a testament to the poise and resilience of its freshman-laden roster. The Blue Devils seemingly have plenty of room for growth with four freshmen in their starting lineup, yet they own the best collection of victories of any team in the country so far with neutral-court wins over Michigan State, Florida and Texas.
While Florida will rue allowing a marquee victory to slip through its fingers, the Gators can take solace in an exceptional overall showing in Portland. They hung 108 points on overmatched Stanford in the quarterfinals, outgunned Gonzaga in double overtime in the semifinals and thoroughly outplayed the No. 1 team in the country for 30 minutes in Sunday’s title game.
Chiozza’s playmaking instincts and desire to have the ball in his hands late in close games make him a far more dangerous weapon than Kasey Hill at point guard. Koulechov has made a smooth transition from Rice to high-major basketball and Hudson is shooting at a more efficient clip than he ever did at Virginia Tech.
Florida has room for improvement defensively, but the return of John Egbunu from a knee injury that ended his season last year could help. The 6-foot-11 center is an accomplished shot blocker and rebounder capable of filling a void for the Gators.
You can bet Florida would love another crack at Duke with Egbunu to help defend Bagley and Wendell Carter.
The Gators seemingly had Duke beat on Sunday night. Somehow, someway, the Blue Devils engineered another escape.
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