Updated at: 11/29/2013 9:35 PM
By JIM O'CONNELL
(AP) NEW YORK - Duke’s losses this season have been to Kansas and Arizona, two teams ranked in the top five, two teams which happen to have an outstanding freshman like Jabari Parker of the Blue Devils and two teams that have more height.
Although Parker failed to score at least 20 points for the first time this season _ he did have 19 _ No. 6 Duke struggled against the size of No. 4 Arizona in a 72-66 loss Friday night in the championship game of the NIT Season Tip-Off at Madison Square Garden.
"We played really well here. They are difficult to defend," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "We played a game worthy of winning.
"I thought we played a lot better than we did against Kansas (a 94-83 loss on Nov. 12). I think my team has improved. There is no shame in losing to Kansas or Arizona," Krzyzewski said. "Part of us getting better is getting older together."
Nick Johnson scored all but two of his 15 points in the second half and T.J. McConnell had 10 points and eight assists to lead the Wildcats to the win that showed just how versatile a team they are.
"We’re an all-around team. Really you could see it in the box score. It was pretty even all the way around," Johnson, the tournament’s MVP, said, referring to the five starters scoring in double figures. "We’re a good team and we can play with anybody."
The game was expected to be a matchup of two of the best freshmen in the country and, although Aaron Gordon of Arizona and Parker didn’t spend a lot of time covering each other or supplying highlight clips, they were both key factors in the outcome.
Gordon, the quiet forward, finished with 10 points and seven rebounds and came up big late with a dunk on an alley-oop pass and then fed fellow freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson for a dunk less than a minute later to give the Wildcats (7-0) a 61-51 lead with 3:59 to play.
"He stayed patient, which is one of the qualities that he has as a player," Arizona coach Sean Miller said of Gordon, who had two points in 11 minutes in the first half. " He played 20 minutes in the second half so he was out there more. But we as a group have to find ways to use his offensive talent even more, and he’s such a unique player."
Parker, who had 19 points for his first game with fewer than 20 points this season, struggled against Arizona’s physical defense and was 7 of 21 from the field. He came into the game shooting 60 percent from the field.
"Jabari is going to get a lot of attention. He had a number of shots go in and out and he has to keep shooting them," Krzyzewski said. "I thought he played a really good game it just didn’t go down for him. It’s physical. They have taller guys and if you do get around the basket they’re 6-9 or 6-10 ... that’s a big-time front line."
Parker, who came into the game shooting 61 percent from beyond the arc, missed all five of his 3-point attempts.
"Getting the experience of playing against bigger guys. It’s no excuse for them to have the advantage because it is not necessarily a game that requires height," Parker said. "It’s just about getting back in the gym and work on it."
Miller called Parker "a really dynamic offensive player."
"One of the things that’s striking in person is how big he is," Miller said. "He gets the ball in and around the basket. He’s a load, yet he’s so talented away from the goal. And I’m sure as Duke’s cohesiveness starts to come their way, that he’ll make the other players on his team even better than he already does."
Krzyzewski said his team’s lack of height can’t be simulated in practice.
"Two things you can’t practice against if you don’t have them are quickness and length," Krzyzewski said. "We have quickness. We don’t have length. They have great length on their team."
The victory gave Arizona its fourth NIT Season Tip-Off title, tying Duke (6-2) for the most ever.
Johnson, the Wildcats’ leading scorer at 17.3 per game, shook off a quiet first half to become the focal point of Arizona’s offense. His 3-pointer with 11:07 to play tied the game at 45. He hit another 3 with 6:22 left to give Arizona a 57-48 lead.
Brandon Ashley had 13 points and Kalen Tarczewski added 10 points and nine rebounds for the Wildcats, who finished with a 36-28 rebound advantage.
Rodney Hood led Duke with 21 points and eight rebounds.
"We talked all year about we don’t have a center, and we have good players, and we have to figure out how to be good with the players we have," Krzyzewski said. "So I thought those kids played really well. I mean, I thought they played their hearts out."
Gordon, who came in averaging 12.5 points and 9.7 rebounds, had a big block of Rasheed Sulaimon with 45 seconds left and the Wildcats leading 65-59.
Duke had won 15 straight games in the NIT Season Tip-Off and had won 15 of its last 17 games played at Madison Square Garden.
The Blue Devils, who came into the game shooting 53.4 percent from the field, finished 25 of 58 from the field, including 4 of 14 from 3-point range, where they came in shooting 44.7 percent. They were held 24 points below their scoring average for the season.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)