LAHAINA, HAWAII – Ascendant star Rui Hachimura scored 20 points and made key late plays to lead third-ranked Gonzaga University to a win over college basketball heavyweight Duke in the Maui Invitational title game on Wednesday.
The 20-year-old junior shot 7-for-14 from the floor and 5-for-9 from the line for a team-high 20 points, and added seven rebounds, five assists and three blocks in the 89-87 win over a No. 1-ranked Duke team featuring several highly touted pro prospects, including likely top NBA pick Zion Williamson.
Hachimura’s biggest moments came late. With the score tied 87-87, the 203-cm power forward, who hails from Toyama Prefecture, scored the go-ahead bucket with 1:17 remaining and then played solid defense on Duke standout R.J. Barrett, forcing him into a difficult shot and then blocking the Canadian freshman at the rim as he looked to tie the game.
“I think he (got a) switch to me and tried to play one-on-one against me,” said Hachimura of Barrett’s attempted late-game heroics. “I was like OK, let’s do it. We are the best team in the country and I am going to be the best player, so I have to guard him.”
At Hachimura’s declaration of his status, his coach Mark Few interjected in the news conference, saying, “Amen brother, now you are getting the message, let’s continue on this line of thinking.”
After the game, Hachimura was recognized for his play at the early season tournament, being named Most Valuable Player after recording three 20-plus point games.
For Hachimura, however, the award came as a surprise.
“I didn’t know what they were talking about . . . I didn’t know we had MVP and stuff so I didn’t know and my teammates just started (celebrating),” said Hachimura.
Few said Hachimura’s new understanding of his ability and role “means everything,” particularly against the high-quality caliber of teams playing in Hawaii.
“We’ve been working on this. I’ve been working on him to truly believe (in himself),” said Few. “He does not show his emotions great, he does not share much . . . (but) for him to voice that means he is getting it, and on this stage, he showed it, too.
“He was wanting the ball, and when we got him the ball, for the most part, he was delivering against some high-level athletes and some damn good defenders around the rim. That’s a really, really good sign for us.”
The Zags beat a No. 1 team for the first time while ending the Blue Devils’ unbeaten streak on the Valley Isle (17-1).
Dubbed a Final Four contender when Killie Tillie returns, Gonzaga already looks like one — even with one of their best players on the bench in a walking boot.
Five-time Maui champion Duke (5-1) made it look easy in the season’s first five games, its fantastic freshmen soaring through the spotlight, not cowering away from it while looking all but unbeatable.
The experienced Zags gave them a lesson in ball movement, orchestrating a master class in free-flowing, position-less basketball while building a 14-point first-half lead.
Barrett had 23 points and Williamson added 22 for the Blue Devils.
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