LAHAINA, Hawaii - With Gerald Henderson elevating over any defender the Fighting Illini threw at him, No. 13 Duke played as if its rise to the top of the Maui Invitational field was as inevitable as it has been perfect.
The Blue Devils (4-0), who have yet to lose in the Lahaina Civic Center, took down Illinois 79-66 Tuesday night led by a 23-point effort from Henderson. With the win, Duke advances to face No. 11 Marquette tonight for a shot at a record fourth island invitational title.
What began as a tight, physical battle between two athletic teams-Illinois (3-1) led for the game's first 10 minutes-soon became a blowout. The Blue Devils went on a 29-12 run aided by an 11-for-13 first-half performance from the free-throw line. Illini power forward Brian Randle had a team-high seven points before being sent to the bench with three fouls with just over four minutes remaining in the period.
Although Illinois looked to gain momentum at the very end of the first half, going on an 8-0 run in the 91 seconds before intermission, and pulled within three at the opening of the second, the Blue Devils never relinquished their lead. Duke shot 56.5 percent from the field while holding the Illini to a 32.3 percent clip for the night.
"You can't take everything away from a team," Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "We took some of their motion [offense options] away, where they didn't get a good initial shot, and at times, they got a second shot. Our guys did a really good job of talking on switches. We were a very mature, very mature basketball team today."
This maturity manifested itself in the play of Henderson and senior captain DeMarcus Nelson, who were both able to create shots at times when the Blue Devils needed them most. Krzyzewski said the two players were "good drivers" Tuesday night, as the duo combined for six dunks and layups in a devastating first-half run and made a collective 14 trips to the charity stripe over the course of the game.
With the Illini in foul trouble early, Henderson exploited weaknesses in the Illinois perimeter defense he said he saw in game film to become a human highlight reel. The 6-foot-4 guard took it to the house on multiple occasions, including a monster one-handed jam off a fast break at the 3:31 mark of the first half that gave Duke a 39-23 lead and brought the Duke fans in attendance at the 2400-seat civic center to their feet.
"They have a lot of offensive weapons," Fighting Illini head coach Bruce Weber said. "You shut down the lane, they kick it for threes. You help, they get to the hoop. Just a lot of people that can score baskets-Henderson and Nelson being able to create, get into the paint and jump over some people. Their improvement is just huge for [Duke]."
Supplementing the 39 points from the two standout guards was a solid floor game from point guard Greg Paulus, whom Krzyzewski said had the "game in his hands." The junior had 10 points, four assists and only one turnover. Krzyzewski also was quick to compliment the play of his bench, which he had criticized sharply after Monday's contest against Princeton. With three Blue Devils picking up four fouls, and freshman phenom Kyle Singler fouling out, sophomore Jon Scheyer clocked 32 minutes and 7-foot-1 Brian Zoubek went 2-for-2 from the field in 18 minutes in what Krzyzewski called the best game of the center's career.
On the other side of the ball, the Blue Devils showcased a 2-3 zone in the early part of both halves. The zone defense baffled the Illini, particularly in the first half, which Weber said helped to seal the game for Duke.
"It was a smart strategy. Both times [Krzyzewski] did it, we didn't have a great zone unit in there, we didn't have shooters in there," Weber said. "We looked a little bit lost, frustrated.... It was key stretches where the zone was effective for them. We just didn't execute and spread out and allowed them to have short little runs like that, [which] can be the difference maker in the game."
The Blue Devils play Marquette tonight at 10 p.m. for the Maui Invitational crown. The Golden Eagles, who routed Oklahoma State 91-61 earlier Tuesday, gave Duke its first loss of the 2006-2007 season in a 73-62 title win in the CBE Classic this time last year.
"Coming into the tournament, we felt Marquette was the most veteran, most explosive team," Krzyzewski said of the squad returning four of five starters from that game a year ago. "They're going to be way ahead of other people, and their performance thus far has shown that. I hope our team has the energy and the stamina because you have to play a great game to beat Marquette."
Both teams have had great success in preseason tournaments. In the past two seasons, the Golden Eagles have taken both the Great Alaskan Shootout and the CBE Classic titles. The Blue Devils, on the other hand, have yet to lose in Maui. Wednesday night in island paradise, something, or rather someone, has got to give. The Blue Devils, however, hope that they can continue to elevate, taking another Maui Invitational crown on their way up.
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