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How Wendell Moore’s words, as much as his actions, keyed Duke’s win over Gonzaga

·4 min read

With superstar freshman Paolo Banchero off getting IV fluids to calm his cramping quads and a lead having disappeared, No. 5 Duke faced a make-or-break stretch of basketball Friday night.

The din of sold-out T-Mobile Arena, even though the participating teams were both more than 1,000 miles from home, grew even louder as top-ranked Gonzaga had finally grabbed a three-point lead over Blue Devils.

One voice rose above them all and, in this case, it was not that of Duke’s Hall of Fame coach, Mike Krzyzewski.

During a timeout with Gonzaga in front and the Blue Devils having committed a turnover, it was Wendell Moore who spoke up, spoke loudly and spoke forcefully.

“The leadership of my captain, I think, was the key to the game,” Krzyzewski said. “Wendell Moore was absolutely spectacular in his leadership, especially at the timeout when they took the lead and we had turned the ball over. The things he said and his demeanor and what he said to his team, he really led us to a victory.”

Moore scored 20 points with six assists and hit five key free throws over the final 1:11 to stave off Gonzaga and give the Blue Devils an 84-81 win.

Those are the counting stats, the stuff the play-by-play and the box score show. Krzyzewski offered a glimpse of something beyond those numbers.

Gonzaga guard Julian Strawther, left, brings the ball up next to Duke forward Wendell Moore Jr. (0) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Friday, Nov. 26, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Ellen Schmidt)
Gonzaga guard Julian Strawther, left, brings the ball up next to Duke forward Wendell Moore Jr. (0) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Friday, Nov. 26, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Ellen Schmidt)

“Saying the things I should have been saying”

With 11:24 to play, Gonzaga had not only climbed back from Duke’s nine-point first half lead, the Bulldogs were up 64-61. Duke’s Joey Baker had just lost the ball while attempting to drive down the lane. Moore fouled Gonzaga’s Julian Strawther after he’d secured the ball for the Bulldogs and an official timeout arrived.

The Blue Devils gathered around the coach but it was Moore who said the important words, even if he sheepishly feigned forgetfulness when later asked to repeat them.

“I guess in PG words it was just that we had to pick it up,” Moore said with a laugh.

That’s ok. Krzyzewski was glad to jump back in and fill in the gaps.

“You know, sometimes when a leader says things he doesn’t remember what he says,” Krzyzewski said. “But I remember what he said. Be strong with the ball. Let’s get going. We can’t be giving them layups. He was saying the things I should have been saying but when it comes from a player, it’s better. It’s better and especially that moment.”

Duke forward Wendell Moore Jr. (0) receives the MVP award after winning an NCAA college basketball game against Gonzaga at the Good Sam Empire Classic Friday, Nov. 26, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Ellen Schmidt)
Duke forward Wendell Moore Jr. (0) receives the MVP award after winning an NCAA college basketball game against Gonzaga at the Good Sam Empire Classic Friday, Nov. 26, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Ellen Schmidt)

Following the timeout, Gonzaga didn’t score for the next 90 seconds or so of play. While the Blue Devils strung together stops, they scored five points in a row on a Mark Williams basket and a Joey Baker 3-pointer to bolt back in front 66-64.

The Zags responded with three easy baskets -- layups by Anton Watson and Nolan Hickman sandwiched around a Chet Holmgren fade-away jumper -- to take a 70-66 lead with 8:40 to play.But Gonzaga would make just one field goal over the next seven minutes. With Banchero having returned to the game, Moore started the push that put Duke in front for good with a jumper at 8:06. His two free throws with 4:31 left gave Duke a 75-73 lead and the Blue Devils never trailed again.

Krzyzewski, though, looked back to that timeout. With Banchero out, Gonzaga was in position to open up a lead too large for Duke to overcome. Instead, Duke stayed within striking distance and finally made its move.

“That was a critical moment,” Krzyzewski said. “I’ve been in a lot of games, we could have gotten knocked out right there.”

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski talks to forward Paolo Banchero during the second half of the team’s NCAA college basketball game against Gonzaga on Friday, Nov. 26, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Ellen Schmidt)
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski talks to forward Paolo Banchero during the second half of the team’s NCAA college basketball game against Gonzaga on Friday, Nov. 26, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Ellen Schmidt)

Winning with a limited Banchero

But Duke didn’t. Banchero’s 20 first-half points, scored with a variety of moves that wowed all the NBA scouts and administrators in attendance, helped the Blue Devils lead 45-42 at halftime.

When his cramping got so bad he said he was afraid he’d fall down, Banchero left the game for treatment.

As it turned out, he didn’t make a shot after halftime and his lone point on a free throw gave him 21 points, one more than Moore.

Duke won anyway, a sign they’ve got a little something extra that turns talented teams into great ones.

The win might not have happened had Moore not found his voice to use the captaincy bestowed upon him by his teammates in that crucial timeout.

As a result, the Blue Devils have the kind of win that can propel a team to the highest accomplishments in the sport.

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