Arizona’s balanced offense, relentless defense are too much for Duke

The moment when Arizona must have known it had Duke rattled came with six minutes left in Friday night's NIT Season Tip-Off title game and the outcome still in doubt.

A Blue Devils program that has long been known for its extended man-to-man defense suddenly abandoned its identity, resorting to a few possessions of zone for one of the few times in recent memory.

Much like everything else Duke tried to do to halt Arizona's second-half momentum, it didn't work. The fourth-ranked Wildcats were too long and athletic on defense and too poised and efficient on offense, remaining undefeated by defeating the sixth-ranked Blue Devils 72-66 in a highly anticipated NIT title game that lived up to expectations.

Arizona's win is especially impressive considering Duke's unparalleled November success in recent years. Not only had Duke won its last 15 holiday tournament games prior to Friday night, the Blue Devils were also 14-0 in the Preseason NIT since 1996.

It took a brilliant defensive effort from Arizona (7-0) to halt those two winning streaks.

Duke's potent offense entered the night averaging 90 points per game, shooting 53.4 percent from the field and sinking 44.7 percent of its threes, but the Blue Devils didn't come close to matching any of those season averages. Arizona's defenders had the speed and quickness to stay in front of Duke's perimeter players and the size and length to contest their shots.

Jabari Parker, Duke's precocious freshman star, failed to reach the 20-point plateau for the first time in eight games, tallying 19 points but requiring 21 shots to do it. Rodney Hood took advantage of some mismatches to score 21 points and Quinn Cook had an efficient 13, but no other Blue Devils player made much of an impact as the team shot a pedestrian 42.4 percent from the field.

Arizona was less consistently able to exploit its side advantage in the paint on offense, but the Wildcats finally caught fire after Duke built a six-point lead early in the second half. Guard Nick Johnson erupted for 13 of his 15 points in the second half, keying a 20-5 blitz that wrested control of the game from Duke and enabled Arizona to emerge with one of its biggest regular season wins of the Sean Miller era.

The two biggest baskets of the run came via Arizona's three best players in Friday's game. First came a pretty three-point play from freshman Aaron Gordon to extend Arizona's lead to six, followed by a transition 3-pointer from a trailing Johnson after point guard T.J. McConnell made a wise decision not to drive into the teeth of the defense.

McConnell finished with a near triple-double on 10 points, eight assists and six rebounds. Gordon was quiet for stretches, but still tallied 10 points, seven rebounds, four assists and two blocks.

Before Friday's game, it was reasonable to question how good Arizona was because the Wildcats had yet to face a fellow top 25 team. A road win at San Diego State was impressive, as was Wednesday's huge comeback to defeat Drexel, but Duke represented a different sort of challenge.

There's no questioning whether Arizona belongs anymore though. Behind a dominant defense and an offense that was efficient in stretches, the Wildcats notched one of the best victories of the season.

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