LAHAINA, Hawaii — For a player, and person, who rarely shares his emotions or his thinking, it was a rather remarkable moment.
After nearly 40 minutes of some of the best college basketball that will happen this or any year, Rui Hachimura’s eyes lit up when the man many expect to be the first name from Adam Silver’s lips next June squared up and took aim at him and the rim he was protecting.
Third-ranked Gonzaga led by two, and No. 1 Duke’s R.J. Barrett was ready to barrel into the lane to change that in the final seconds.
“He switched on me and then he tried to play one-on-one against me,” Hachimura said. “And then I was like, ‘okay, let’s do it.’ We’re the best team in the country, and I’m the best player, too, so I have to guard him.”
That confidence proved no hubris.
Barrett got into the lane and met a wall in Hachimura’s chest, forcing him to flail and finish around him, allowing for Gonzaga’s Brandon Clarke to swat the ball and Duke’s perfect start to the season away as the Bulldogs won the Maui Invitational with an 89-87 victory over the Blue Devils in a masterpiece in paradise.
For a Gonzaga team that looked vulnerable against both Illinois and Arizona, it was almost a stunning result against a Duke team that previously had looked potentially invincible.
“If you can win this tournament, the premier tournament, every year and with this kind of field and everybody was saying was the greatest ever,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said, “I think that it’s more a culmination of the three wins and how we did it. We certainly didn’t play perfect in games one or two, but figured out ways to get through them.”
At the center of it all is the 6-foot-8 Hachimura, a likely lottery pick and a burgeoning star.
He had 20 points, seven rebounds, five assists and three blocks against the Blue Devils, putting his immense talent and versatility on display for the dozens of NBA scouts and general managers in attendance and anyone with can distinguish between a basketball and a spatula.
He was awesome. He is awesome. He’s apparently starting to fully realize it.
“I’ve been working on him to truly believe that,” Few saiid. “He doesn’t show his emotions great. He doesn’t share much, but much more comfortable talking like that and for him to voice that means he’s getting it and I think 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, high level athletes and some damn good defenders around the rim. So that’s a really, really good sign for us.”
It’s far from the only positive totem for the Bulldogs, who led Duke, which crushed Kentucky and easily handled Auburn already this season, by as many as 16 points and then held off the late rally from coach Mike Krzyzewski’s talented freshmen foursome.
“They’re strong, they’re old, and they’re unselfish and they play their butts off,” Krzyzewski said. “And Hachimura gives them a guy that you can go to to get a bucket or get fouled. But he’s better because the other guys are good too. In other words, you can’t just double team him or whatever — well, you can try, but he’ll, another good player is going to be open. They have good weapons.”
It was hardly a disappointing result for Duke, which nearly shrugged off a massive punch from one of the country’s best teams. If Barrett makes different decisions with the ball late, maybe Duke leaves Maui with a trophy. Not bad for a team of freshmen in November.
Duke undoubtedly will find another gear or six with its roster before the NCAA tournament and perhaps a rematch with these ‘Zags in Minneapolis.
Gonzaga will, too.
The Bulldogs are without Killian Tillie, the 6-foot-10 French national who is every bit an NBA prospect. When he returns from an ankle injury, Gonzaga will become even more fearsome.
“When we get Killian back that will continue to get better and better,” Few said. “But it was good, not great here. But we got a lot of stuff on film we can go home and really spend some time with.”
That time and their talent should make for a powerful combination. Just like Hachimura’s emerging belief in what a ferocious presence he can be. Like when he’s faced with an aggressive challenge bearing down on him and meets it with fearlessness.
“My thinking was like I had to do it,” he said. “I got to do it.”