“I tell you, I'm really ecstatic that we were able to win this tournament here in the Garden. Everybody here knows what a special place this is. We talk to our players a lot about it. You can see our fans, how many fans we have, being from the West,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s monstrous two handed dunk gave Arizona their first double-digit lead of the contest, 61-51, which put an exclamation point on any hopes of a Duke comeback.
Nick Johnson led the Wildcats, who had all five starters in double figures, with 15 points en route to being named the tournament's most outstanding player, prompting Miller to talk about Johnson being a go-to player for his team.
“Nick's become that for us," (a go to player) Miller said. "He's taken big shots. He's made them. Part of being a go-to guy is what I described earlier. There's a lot of go-to guys that are doing well when things are going well for them and their team. True go-to guys are the ones that dig their team out of a gutter or are able to put three or four bad plays behind them and make the next big play," he commented. “It's great to see Nick developing into that, because he's experienced -- I coached Solomon Hill who was the first pick of the Indiana Pacers this year, and Nick reminds me a lot of Solomon's track, where each year, the attitude is a roll to his game. I don't know if there are more complete guards in the country than Nick, when you just look at what he means to our team and the value, the way he plays both ends of the floor. He's really turned into a terrific guard.”
Johnson said the win showed the nation the Wildcats are a good team.
“We're an all-around team. Really, you could see it in the box score. It was pretty even all the way around. We're a good team. Duke's going to win a lot of games this year. I mean, they have been struggling a little bit as of late, but they will get it together. Coach K always does. We're a good team and we can play with anybody.”
Arizona jumped out to an early 6-4 lead, but Duke responded with a 7-0 run to go up 11-6. The Wildcats the answered with a 7-0 run of their own, led by five points from Brandon Ashley, to take a 13-11 advantage. The Blue Devils then went on an 8-2 rally, with four points apiece for Rodney Hood and Quinn Cook to jump back ahead 19-15. Arizona scored the next six points of the contest to regain the lead.
With the score 23-22 Wildcats, Duke’s Rasheed Sulaimon would hit three straight free throws to give his team the slight edge, but Arizona big men Aaron Gordon and Brandon Ashley scored back-to-back buckets to regain the lead for the Wildcats.
Freshman sensation Jabari Parker, who finished with 19 points, scored four of the next five Blue Devil Points to give his squad a 30-27 advantage. The Wildcats knotted the game again on a layup from Hollis-Jefferson, only for Duke to regain the lead on a dunk by Parker.
Going into the halftime, Duke held a 36-33 edge over Arizona, a half that was tied 11 times and had the lead changed eight times. The Blue Devils opened up their lead to five on a jumper from Hood, who led all scorers with 21 points. Kaleb Tarczewski scored Arizona’s next four points from the foul line to make it a one point game, 38-37.
With the score at 43-39, Gordon hit a three to make it a one point game again. Then at 45-42, Johnson knocked down a three for the last tie of the contest, 45-45. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski saw these as the biggest shots of the contest.
“I thought one of the biggest shots of the game was Gordon’s three, we were up by four, and then Johnson hit one right after. They had two threes that wiped out our lead. It seemed to give them a little more life. Then we had one rim out. Sometimes the game is just as simple as that.”
Then 2:21 later, Brandon Ashley hit a jumper to give Arizona a 47-45 lead with left, part of a 19-point rally that gave the Wildcats control of the contest. Duke cut the Arizona lead to 63-58 on a three point play from Parker, but Arizona was able to hold on.
The win was appreciated by the Arizona fans, who filled the Garden with a “U of A” chant. This was Duke’s second loss to a top five team, the first coming to Kansas in the Champions Classic. Krzyzewski thought his team played better in tonight’s contest.
“I thought we played a lot better tonight then we did against Kansas," Coach K said. "I think my team is improved. When you play, there is no shame in losing to a Kansas or an Arizona. We play a big time schedule, when you lose, you congratulate the other guy. We just need to figure out how to get better.”