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And one: Williams shines as Duke topples Gonzaga in big leap for title contenders

Sophomore Mark Williams made his presence felt in the paint during a career game for the Virginia Beach, Va., native.
Sophomore Mark Williams made his presence felt in the paint during a career game for the Virginia Beach, Va., native.

After each Duke men's basketball game this season, check back here for the Player of the Game and more. Today, the Blue Zone breaks down a big night from Mark Williams and the rest of Duke's all-time classic win against Gonzaga:

One player: Mark Williams

In a battle featuring star big men Paolo Banchero, Chet Holmgren and Drew Timme, it was Mark Williams that landed the biggest punch for the Blue Devils in last night’s heavyweight bout. The sophomore center finished the game with 17 points on 8-for-9 shooting with his only miss an early 3-point attempt. Most of his buckets came on thunderous dunks, furthering the momentum toward Duke when it needed it most. Williams also added onto that a game-high five blocks plus nine rebounds over a season-high 28 minutes. 

Williams may as well have finished with seven blocks on the stat sheet, as two close calls led to goaltending and a foul, both of which could have gone in Duke’s favor if they were able to be reviewed. Even with some foul trouble in the second half, Williams was able to keep his composure in order to collect some high-pressure defensive stops, including a crucial stop within the last minute, sending the Blue Devils back to the free throw line to close out the victory. This game was likely always going to depend on the way the big men performed, and Mark Williams brought it. 

One word: Experience

For any team looking to make a deep tournament run, there are a few things it needs to experience in order to be best prepared for primetime. The first thing would be playing the best of the best. Well, Duke did that Friday night and came out on top. The Blue Devils did the same thing when they went up against Kentucky in the first game of the season. Those matchups are used to find what the team is really made of and whether they can sink or swim. Proving to themselves that they can swim will do wonders for the confidence of such a young team, and they will only be getting better as chemistry continues to grow.

The other type of experience this game provided for the Blue Devils is additional experience in neutral sites. While the team is yet to play a true road game this season, they have played two high-level neutral matchups at Madison Square Garden and in Las Vegas. Neutral sites are where the ACC and NCAA tournaments are played, fans are split and champions are crowned. Learning to play in this environment, especially against teams like Gonzaga, can be key to tournament success later on. So far, the Blue Devils have proved they have what it takes to perform in these locations, and trend that bodes well for a strong season-long run. Their next game against Ohio State Tuesday will give them the rare road trip to a nonconference team's home court.

One stat: 60% free throw shooting

It is really hard to pick holes in the performance the Blue Devils put out on the floor Friday. They went blow for blow—at times with Banchero back in the locker room—with the national title favorite Gonzaga, and still came out on top. The defense was excellent, forcing 17 turnovers and holding the Bulldogs to just 28.6% from the 3-point line. With those numbers, you would think the game could have been put away much earlier than it was. Some disappointing free throw shooting—a 15-for-25 mark—held the Blue Devils back from a more decisive win.

While Duke fans will find it hard to complain about anything from Friday's win, we have seen some Duke teams in the past have their seasons cut short because of their below-average ability to hit shots from the line. Before last night’s game, the team had been relatively impressive from the line, even going 27-of-29 against the Citadel, a stunning 93.1%. While it is not a major concern, Duke's free throw shooting is definitely something that should be monitored as the season goes on. Adding on a few extra points here and there, rather than going 1-for-2 each trip to the line, is always helpful for winning teams. 


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