NEW YORK—There was 15:26 left in the ball game and Wendell Moore Jr. stood at halfcourt as the media timeout was called.
Moore’s hands were raised, and he was signaling to the crowd to get louder.
After all, he had just sparked a pivotal 8-4 Duke run.
Duke squared off against a physical Kentucky team in Madison Square Garden, and with the lights shining bright in head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final Champions Classic, the Blue Devils bested the Wildcats 79-71. And in the sport's greatest venue, freshman guard Trevor Keels and junior forward Wendell Moore Jr. dazzled with 25 points and 12 points, respectively.
"It's just an amazing game. It felt so good with the Garden crowd and playing against an outstanding team. They're tough, and we're tough," head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "That was a big-time game, really big time, and our guys really fought through a lot of adversity."
Keels had just nine points by the conclusion of the first half, but when the second half began he showed just exactly what the tattoo across his back that reads “Keel mode” means.
The Virginia native scored 10 points in the first eight minutes of the period, and was a huge reason the Blue Devils were able to quell the momentum Kentucky garnered after coming out of the locker room at halftime strong.
"That's definitely where I got Keel mode from, right there," Keels said.
The Keels run was of paramount importance to Duke’s win, but it came at the heels of an impressive run sparked by the play-making of Moore.
Duke found itself down 44-43 after the Wildcats came out firing after the break. Then Moore pulled out a one-handed jam after a surgical baseline drive. But that wasn’t enough for the junior, who followed that up with a block on the next possession and went on to spark the aforementioned 8-4 run.
Moore showed that he was going to have a game to remember early, logging Duke’s first basket of the game and then following it up with a one-handed putback jam after an errant Keels 3-pointer. The effectiveness around the rim was encouraging, but what stood out most about his game was that he showed off so many of the tools Duke fans have seen him sporadically use during his three years.
Despite the onslaught from Moore and Keels, Kentucky did not go away quietly in the second half. A 3-pointer from Keion Brooks Jr. and five consecutive points from Oscar Tshiebwe had Madison Square Garden jumping, and Duke found itself with its heels against the wall with just over five minutes left to play.
On the next possession, Kentucky guard Sahvir Wheeler dribbled to his left and flipped up a decent look at the rim, but big man Mark Williams swatted it just before it hit the glass to give Duke a much-needed opportunity to score. And none other than Keels himself put the ball in the hole on the ensuing possession to quiet down the Kentucky faithful. Williams followed that up with another block, and this time freshman Paolo Banchero finished in the paint for the bucket to all but seal the game.
From the beginning, Banchero showed exactly what all the preseason hype surrounding him was about. He pulled out a smooth crossover at the 17:22 mark from the free throw line to effortlessly nail a stepback, and later in the half he created another shot for himself from almost the identical spot, and once again he drilled it. Banchero ended with 22 points, and he showed a level of maturity in his game with how effortlessly he drew fouls from Wildcat defenders with his nine attempts from the charity stripe. The Seattle, Wash., native gave Duke fans a scare when he left the game momentarily with a cramp during the second half, but he returned later in the period and poured on more points.
"It definitely did [live up to the hype]," Banchero said of playing at Madison Square Garden. "It was almost like you get lost in it. Like it don't even really affect you just because you literally get lost in it. That's what it felt like, I was just out there playing. It was a great crowd. Loud, energetic—when they went on their run their crowd started getting loud and then we responded and you can hear our fans get loud it's a crazy environment, something I've never experienced before so it was fun."
Even with the favorable ending for the Blue Devils, the 3-pointer plagued them all night. They got off to a highly efficient start from the field thanks to being aggressive in the paint, but finished the night 1-of-13 from beyond the arc. Despite that, the team's overall aggressiveness attacking the rim kept Duke's field goal percentage hovering around 50% the whole night and was enough to stop Kentucky in the end.
"You have to give credit to Kentucky," Krzyzewski said of the Duke's 3-point shooting. "They really play good defense and they have depth and they have old depth, so I thought they did a really great job of taking away threes and recovering."
To win against a team as good as Kentucky, it takes more than just the starting five, and Theo John is a perfect example of a Blue Devil who played his role to perfection. The graduate student checked in early in the first half and got to the line on the first Duke possession, as well as blocked a high-speed take through the lane from Brooks at the 9:27 mark of the first half.
Even in the first half, the 6-foot-9 Tshiebwe made it clear that he was not going to be deterred by the taller frame of the 7-foot Mark Williams. Tshiebwe forced Williams to fight on both ends of the floor and came out of the locker room at halftime with two straight buckets to pull Kentucky ahead. Williams fought back too, and although his statline wasn’t glamorous, moments like when he grabbed not one, but two offensive rebounds before tipping back his own miss halfway through the first half show just how far the sophomore has progressed since a season ago.
With all said and done, Duke started off in the win column and takes on Army Friday.
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Jake Piazza is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 117th volume.