LAHAINA, Hawaii—In a highly anticipated matchup between fast-paced offenses and talented wings, the Blue Devils’ big man in the middle was the difference.
Not Zion Williamson. The other one.
The top-ranked Blue Devils took down No. 8 Auburn 78-72 Tuesday evening at the Lahaina Civic Center in the semifinals of the Maui Invitational. Duke was led by an all-around performance from center Marques Bolden, who finished with 11 points, nine rebounds and a career-high seven blocks, coming up clutch when his team needed it most.
With the Tigers cutting a 17-point lead down to six prior to the break, Bolden put the Blue Devils on his back out of the locker room with pairs of blocks and dunks to help Duke stretch the lead back to 16.
"This is the best, by far, that we have protected our basket in a few years," head coach Mike Krzyzewski said about Bolden's performance. "The defense was exquisite. It was at the highest level. Seven blocks and changing some shots, man, that's a heck of a performance."
But Auburn bounced right back with a 12-4 run of its own, with 6-foot-11 center Austin Wiley leading the charge.
From there, the teams went back and forth. The Tigers’ leading scorer Jared Harper cut the lead down to just five with 8:19 remaining, but Cam Reddish responded with a three of his own from way downtown on the next possession to maintain the Duke edge.
"They were down five and he came down, it wasn't called or anything, he just, boom, he got us back to eight," Krzyzewski said. "It's a big-time play. I thought that was the play of the game, really."
With the Blue Devils (5-0) holding a 10-point lead and less than five minutes left, Bolden put the cherry on top of his night with a big block on a layup by Samir Doughty before running the length of the floor for an alley-oop off an assist by Tre Jones. On the next play, Bolden added yet another block.
The Blue Devils took advantage of Auburn’s inability to convert from downtown in the opening minutes and spurted out to an early double-digit lead that grew to 33-16 with 5:51 left in the first half. But the Tigers (4-1) found their stroke using a trio of triples and a couple of dunks to cut the Duke lead down to as few as six, and the Blue Devils entered the locker room with a 41-33 lead.
"I thought their two guards are really as good as any two guards in the country," Krzyzewski said of Auburn's comeback. "They are big-time elite guards and we did, overall, a good job against them. But they are elite.... They can beat anybody."
Duke’s leading scorer, R.J. Barrett, had a game that was reflective of the Blue Devils as a whole. Barrett struggled to find his stroke despite leading the team in scoring along with Reddish with 18 points, making just seven of his 20 shots from the field. Duke could not find its range Tuesday. After draining 10 triples against San Diego State, the Blue Devils were held to less than 30 percent beyond the arc by the Tigers.
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Reddish looked strong out of the gate for Duke, scoring eight points on 2-of-3 shooting from the field in the first half. Reddish, however, could not keep his composure on the defensive side of the ball, accruing three fouls in just seven minutes of play. The Norristown, Pa., native has struggled defending strong guards early in his college career—Reddish was also forced to the bench against Kentucky Nov. 6 and Monday against San Diego State.
After San Diego State held Zion Williamson to three points in the first half Monday, Auburn also did not allow Williamson to dominate the interior in the opening 20 minutes. Big men Chuma Okeke, Anfernee McLemore and Wiley held the Spartanburg, S.C., native to just one make on three first-half shot attempts, but the agile freshman recovered in the second half, electrifying the crowd with an assist on an alley-oop pass to Barrett and finding his offensive rhythm to bring his final total to 13.
"I actually thought today he put some pressure on himself," Krzyzewski said. "He usually is a kid that's having a lot of fun. At one of the timeouts in the first half, I said, 'smile, have fun.' I think he wants to be so good and that we've got to be careful for all these guys not to put pressure on themselves and just to play the game because they love to play. Then he got better on it."
Duke used size advantages throughout the lineup to get to the charity stripe, but the Blue Devils left a lot of points at the line. Duke converted on just 67.6 percent of its 34 free throws in the contest. Auburn, on the other hand, only got off nine attempts from the stripe.
Following the victory, Duke will play in the championship game Wednesday at 5 p.m against No. 3 Gonzaga, which knocked off Arizona 91-74 in Tuesday's nightcap.