It was not the best game for Duke, nor was it easy, but the Blue Devils campaign to reach the Final Four in New Orleans lives on.
Second-seeded Duke (31-2) survived a heated matchup with No. 15 Hampton (28-6), winning 67-51 in the first round of play in the NCAA Tournament at Cameron Indoor Stadium Sunday afternoon.
After a physical and hard-fought first half in which the Blue Devils led by 19 for a time, the Lady Pirates came out firing in the second half narrowing Duke’s advantage to as low as six points with ten minutes remaining in the game. It was at that time when the Blue Devils overcame Hampton with their size and skill, closing the game on a 23-11 run.
Duke relied heavily on its superior height to establish a post presence with both center Elizabeth Williams and forward Haley Peters. Defense was the key for the Blue Devils’ success, especially in the first half where Duke held the Lady Pirates to just over 20 percent shooting from the floor and 15 total points.
“I am very proud of our team’s fight. Our defense in the first half was very good, not as good in the second half, but the intensity was there,” head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “We built up a little better rebounding opportunities and I really like our poise and focus when they challenged us.”
Peters, who scored 12 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, hit multiple shots at key junctures for Duke in the second half while Williams provided the spark for the Blue Devils’ runs late in both halves. The duo was crucial to securing the victory in a physical game that forced both teams to fight for every loose ball.
“We knew we had a height advantage against them. Especially with [Williams] who is really strong inside, we wanted to get the ball inside to her and I think we did a pretty good job of doing that,” Peters said.
When the Blue Devils’ lead dwindled to six, and the momentum seemed heavily in favor of Hampton, whose fans clearly outnumbered Duke’s fans, Williams was the first player to score a basket off a second chance opportunity. It seemed that at every point when the Lady Pirates might overtake the Blue Devils, Duke found a way to pull away with strong play inside and on defense.
“I think it was really important to get paint shots especially in a game like this,” Williams said. “You want to get some contact, try to get to the foul line, and get the easiest shots you can get. Of course, getting stops on the other end also fueled the run.”
The bench barely contributed in scoring with merely two points in the entire game, but their presence was palpable. Ka’lia Johnson and Allison Vernerey grabbed seven of Duke’s 18 offensive rebounds while guard Chloe Wells added three assists and three steals.
Four starters—Williams, Peters, Tricia Liston, and Alexis Jones—scored in double figures. Liston, who notched her 1000th point on a three-pointer early in the second half, was Duke’s leading scorer with 20 points. Her backcourt counterpart, Jones, nearly had a triple-double finishing with 11 points, 10 assists, and eight rebounds. Jones commanded the Blue Devil offense with skill throughout the game.
“[Liston] did a great job handling the pressure,” McCallie said. “I thought she exploited that beautifully.”
Hampton, who was widely regarded as under-seeded going into the tournament, fought for the entire game, but fell short in making key shots to keep the game close. Duke expected the Lady Pirates to fight and were prepared to respond to the challenge.
“They’re a good team. They’re one of the best defensive teams in the country,” Peters said. “At this time of year, everyone who makes this tournament is good, and so we knew that they were physical. I don’t think we were that surprised. I just don’t think we handled our halftime lead that well.”
As the Blue Devils move on to a second round matchup at Cameron Indoor Stadium Tuesday evening against No. 7 Oklahoma State, McCallie expects that the competition will remain as intense and hard-fought as this first round game. Duke will look to improve upon this performance understanding that the road will only get tougher from here.
“The last thing you want is to get the impression that things are easy because they’re just not,” McCallie said. “This is a winner’s tournament. Everyone that’s in it is a winner.”