NORFOLK, Va.—When a high-scoring team like Duke lays an egg offensively, it usually spells trouble for its tournament chances. But the second-seeded Blue Devils outlasted sixth-seeded Nebraska 53-45 Sunday, relying on stout defense and their stronger interior presence—including seven blocks from Elizabeth Williams—to advance.
Both teams took the court firing jumpers with reckless abandon. Williams drew first blood in front of a hometown crowd with a strong drop step and finish inside, but the Cornhuskers (26-8) pushed back, securing a seven-point advantage with six minutes remaining in the first period.
The Blue Devils (33-2), however, seemed determined to take a lead into the locker room. With two minutes left to play in the half, Alexis Jones capped off several hard drives with a 3-point jumper from the top of the key, pounding her chest exuberantly and giving Duke a one-point lead that it would never relinquish. Jones finished with 14 points and despite being the smallest player on the floor for most of her 35 minutes, grabbed nine rebounds.
“Lex is a great player,” Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “She’s one of the best point guards in the country of any age… Her nine rebounds were incredible.”
Jones’ contributions were augmented by the scoring efforts of Tricia Liston and Elizabeth Williams, who tallied 17 points and 10 points, respectively. But aside from this trio, the rest of the Blue Devils’ offense could not find its rhythm. Starters Haley Peters and Richa Jackson struggled from the field Sunday, shooting a combined 5-for-16, and Duke’s bench was also held scoreless.
But the Blue Devils clamped down on the defensive end. Nebraska—the Big Ten conference leader in 3-point shooting—was flummoxed against the revolving medley of man-to-man, zone, and trap defenses thrown at them by McCallie. Lieberman Award Finalist Lindsey Moore was held to a team-high 11 points—four below her average—on 18 shot attempts.
“Obviously we struggled,” Moore said. “They kept mixing up what they were in defensively. I think it took us a little bit [of time] to realize whether they were in a 3-2 or 2-3 zone. We didn’t handle their changing defenses very well.”
After losing the lead, Nebraska was able to face Duke’s versatile defense in front of its own bench. Unfortunately for the Cornhuskers, the improved understanding and communication that came along with proximity to their coach did not translate to a higher shooting percentage—the team was held to 34.4 percent from the field in the second half. Nebraska head coach Connie Yori said her team saw its fair share of chances.
"I thought we were off balance,” Yori said. “It was easier in the second half to get the shots we wanted than it was in the first half because it was in front of our bench, and the first half we got a little out of flow and probably didn’t get as many good looks as we would like. You have got to give Duke a lot a credit—they run 3-2, 2-3, trap out of it, don’t trap out of it…. They really do keep you off balance, so I think a lot of the credit goes to them.”
Cornhusker junior Jordan Hooper, who came in averaging 18.2 points per game, also faltered against the dogged intensity of Blue Devil defenders. The All-American was held to 3-of-14 from the field, accumulating only six points before leaving the game with an ankle injury late in the second half. With time winding down, Hooper’s departure appeared to be a demoralizing blow for Moore and her teammates.
“As far as Hooper going down… if you are a fan of Nebraska basketball you know don’t want to see that,” Moore said. “If you are on the team you don’t want to see that, but I definitely think that people that came in and stepped in for [Hooper] and did a really good job.”
Nebraska forwards Meghin Williams and Katie Simon fought to bring energy to the floor, but in the end their efforts were not enough to fill the void left by Hooper’s injury. Free throws by Liston and Jones iced the game, securing Duke an eight-point victory. Although it was not the smoothest performance put on by the Blue Devils this season, McCallie made it clear that she wasn’t worried about aesthetics.
“We don’t want to be pretty," McCallie said. "We want to advance.”
Duke will face off against top-seeded Notre Dame Tuesday evening in the Norfolk regional final to battle for a trip to New Orleans and the Final Four.