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Duke men's basketball's inexperience in big moments proves costly in loss to Gonzaga

<p>Freshman Cam Reddish looked more focused on scoring from the interior Wednesday.</p>

Freshman Cam Reddish looked more focused on scoring from the interior Wednesday.

LAHAINA, Hawaii—It's easy to forget that a team with at least three lottery picks in its ranks is still one of the youngest teams in the NCAA. And when the Blue Devils are playing up to their potential, they have the athleticism to beat anybody.

But, as was evident against a red-hot and talented squad like Gonzaga, Duke's youth can come back to bite it at the worst of times.

The root of the Blue Devils' loss to the Bulldogs can be traced back to poor play making in the first half. Duke struggled to knock down shots consistently and left Gonzaga's shooters open enough to allow the Bulldogs to put the Blue Devils in a hole they could not climb out of. And although Duke's freshmen were instrumental in putting the Blue Devils back in the game with their scoring, Duke's inability to adjust in the final minute ultimately proved to be the Blue Devils' undoing.

"We both were ready to play but they came more emotionally ready," Tre Jones said. "So they came out more ready to play emotionally and had more fire behind them. And we dug ourselves a hole that we had to dig ourselves out of in the second half."

For the first 20 minutes of play, Duke hardly looked like the elite defensive team it was touted to be.

The Blue Devils' freshmen defenders were frequently caught out on ball screens, failing to get to their assignments in time and leaving the Bulldogs wide open for 6-of-10 shooting from the perimeter. Although some of that comes from junior Marques Bolden, who struggled mightily in defending Gonzaga's shooters, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish were often mismatched on guarding the Bulldogs' inside-outside plays and let Gonzaga's lead build.

Unfortunately for Duke, it was also the little mistakes characteristic of youthful teams that added up.

Down by two in the opening 10 minutes of the game, Jones got the breakaway steal but missed a wide open dunk to feed the ball back to Gonzaga. Rui Hachimura promptly picked the ball up and fed it to Brandon Clarke, who converted on his own contested layup. Although Jones put together one of the strongest performances of his career with 17 points including a half-court buzzer beater, his missed opportunity deprived Duke of a potential momentum swing early in the game.

"He knew—you could feel it," Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said of Jones' botched play. "When you compete like this it's not just hearing, seeing. It's you feel the game and the game didn't feel right. Even though you had really good knowledge, you're ready, but it doesn't feel right. And as a guard, as a competitor, maybe making that play might, boom, it might just do what he did in the second half. So I don't fault him for that."  

The young Blue Devils' decision-making again came into question when Duke had an opportunity to complete a 16-point second-half comeback down the stretch. Although Barrett's drives to the rim were initially highly successful and gave the Blue Devils the spark they needed to come within single digits of the Bulldogs, the No. 1 recruit of the Class of 2018 continued to dominate possession even when Gonzaga adjusted to defend him.

After Hachimura put up a go-ahead layup to give the Bulldogs the lead with 1:15 left to play, Barrett attempted five of Duke's final seven shots of the game. Outside of a contested 3-point jumper, four of those shots were blocked by Gonzaga's front court duo of Clarke and Hachimura. Despite having a pair of perimeter sharpshooters in Reddish and Jack White on the floor and also having resident monster Zion Williamson in the post ready to drive and finish, Barrett's refusal to feed to his teammates made Duke's offense predictable enough for the Bulldogs to hold the Blue Devils off.

At the end of the day, a loss like this was bound to happen for Duke. All the talent in the world can't make up for the sometimes poor decision making of a freshman-heavy lineup. Now, it's up to the Blue Devils to learn from this loss so Duke isn't faced with the same scoreline at a more crucial point later in the year.

 "This whole tournament we played, look in our first six games, we played three top-10 teams, and one other who is supposed to win their conference," Krzyzewski said. "We played a hell of a schedule. I think three days in a row for young emotionally, not physically, is tough. And that's where veterans win or have a better opportunity to win. "

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