Thanks to struggles with jump shooting, Duke faced a tight game in game’s final 10 minutes for the first time this season.
The No. 1 Blue Devils proved to have enough grittiness to hold off tough-minded No. 8 ranked Auburn to stay unbeaten.
Auburn sliced Duke’s 16-point, second-half lead to five points with just over eight minutes left, but Duke hit eight of 10 free throws from that point on to beat the Tigers 78-72 in the Maui Invitational semifinals.
The Blue Devils (5-0) advance to Wednesday’s championship game to face either No. 3-ranked Gonzaga or Arizona at 5 p.m.
Duke shot 44 percent and made just 28 percent (7 of 25) of its 3-pointers. Yet all five starters reached double-figures, led by R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish with 18 points each. Zion Williamson scored 13, Marques Bolden 11 and Tre Jones 10.
Bolden had perhaps his finest all-around game in a Duke uniform. The junior center added nine rebounds and seven blocked shots to his statistic line.
Leading 41-33 at halftime after leading by as many as 17 points in the first half, Duke tried to put the Tigers away in the early minutes after halftime.
Four dunks, two by Barrett and two by Bolden, produced an 8-0 run and a 49-33 Duke lead.
But Auburn scored on six consecutive possessions to shut down Duke’s transition game. A 6-0 Tigers run, punctuated by a Wiley slam dunk, left Duke up 53-45 at 13:06.
Williamson’s active play helped Duke stave off the Tigers push. He grabbed an R.J. Barrett airball to score and, after an Auburn turnover, took a nice post feed from Bolden to score for a 57-45 Duke lead.
With Duke having made just 3 of its last 10 shots, Harper drilled a 3-pointer with 8:18 to play leaving Duke with a 61-56 lead. Auburn’s deficit hadn’t been that small since the game’s first three minutes.
But Reddish calmly sank an open 3-pointer just nine seconds later restoring Duke’s eight-point lead at 64-56.
Williamson blocked Brown 3-point attempt and, at the other end, used a quick spin move to sink a layup to give Duke a 69-59 lead with 6:31 left.
After Jack White dived on the floor to secure a loose ball tie-up and give Duke the ball via alternating possession, Barrett’s jumper with 5:49 left pushed Duke’s lead back to 12 points at 71-59.
Auburn’s cold start from the field allowed Duke to build a double-digit lead midway through the first half.
The Tigers missed 17 of their first 21 shots, including eight 3-pointers, over the game’s first eight minutes and Duke sprinted to a 22-8 lead.
Even with Williamson unable to find his groove on offense and Reddish in foul trouble, Duke pushed its lead to 33-16 on a Jones jump shot with 5:51 to play in the half.
Williamson finished the half with six points with just one made field goal. Reddish scored eight points early but played just nine minutes as be picked up his third foul with 7:51 to play in the half and went to the bench.
After Jones’ shot gave Duke its largest lead of the half, the Blue Devils didn’t make another field goal before halftime. Auburn, meanwhile, finally heated up from the field.
Nifty passing in the half court netted dunks for Austin Wiley and Malik Dunbar. R.J. Barrett hit two free throws, but 3-pointers by Bryce Brown and Jared Harper on Auburn’s next two possessions left Duke with a 35-26 lead.
After two Marques Bolden free throws, Anfernee McLemore tipped in Harper’s miss and Brown sank a 3-pointer to slice Duke’s lead to 37-31 with 1:09 left in the half.
Williamson sank four free throws in the final minute of the half and blocked Harper’s layup attempt at the buzzer allowing Duke to lead 41-33 at intermission.