Duke women's basketball uses its size to create a matchup nightmare
The Blue Devils began the season as a team that loved to play off its guards, get out in transition and play a fast-paced game. Now, they are a team that emphasizes throwing the ball into the post, taking care of the ball and slowing the game down.
But with two All-American caliber guards out of commission due to season-ending injuries, Duke had no other choice.
When All-American senior point guard Chelsea Gray saw her season end prematurely with a fractured right kneecap January 12 against Boston College, the Blue Devils still had Gray's talented mentee—sophomore point guard Alexis Jones—to keep the offense running quickly and efficiently. Then Jones tore her left ACL February 23 at Notre Dame, and Duke was suddenly left without the starting backcourt tandem that was the driving force behind its high expectations coming into the season.
The offense’s up-tempo style gradually slowed down as the season wore on, mirroring the team’s losses in the backcourt. In 17 games with both Gray and Jones on the floor, the Blue Devils attempted 49.8 2-pointers and 14.2 3-pointers per game. In the 11-game stretch with only Jones in the starting lineup, Duke saw those numbers dip to 47.0 and 13.6, respectively. The Blue Devils’ attack became even more deliberate after Jones was lost for the year, averaging only 42.8 2-point shots and 9.6 3-point attempts in five contests.
“I think [playing slower without Jones and Gray] has helped,” senior forward Haley Peters said. “We’re not as quick down the floor but we’re a better executing team than we have been, probably [the best] since I’ve been here. That’s going to be a huge thing for us going forward.”
Never one to allow her team to wallow in self-pity, head coach Joanne P. McCallie quickly set out to reshape the Blue Devils’ rotation after her star guards suffered injuries, sliding players into unfamiliar roles in an effort to take advantage of the strengths and weaknesses of the new-look lineup.
“Given our situation, a lot of different people had to stand up in different positions,” freshman forward Oderah Chidom said. “We all have different skill sets, so we work on it in practice. Haley Peters has definitely stepped up, we’re all taking on roles we didn’t expect to take on.”
Peters—who has been a staple of the team’s Elite Eight runs in the previous three seasons—has been asked to take on an entirely new role in the twilight of her Duke career. At 6-foot-3, Peters had comfortably played the role of a traditional four, using her height to form a formidable post tandem with All-American junior Elizabeth Williams and utilizing her deft shooting touch to stretch out opposing defenses.
With both starting guards out, McCallie is now asking more of Peters as she transitions into a sort of guard-forward hybrid. Peters is still making her presence felt inside—her 8.2 rebounds per game since Jones’ injury is a tick higher than her season average—but is also handling some of the point guard duties and has found herself attacking more from the perimeter.
“I think that’s kind of the trendy thing now, to be a post player that’s also a guard,” Peters said. “I think a lot of [transitioning to playing more on the perimeter] is a mental adjustment. I’ve spent a lot of time over my four years working on perimeter skills and stuff, but there’s a big difference between doing that in practice or on your own and stepping into games and playing against people who have played out on the floor for their entire careers.”
Without the savvy Gray and the lightning-quick Jones—both consistent double-digit scorers—Peters has stepped up to take on a more prominent role as a scoring threat herself. She has scored at least 18 points in three of the five games after Jones was lost for the year, as compared to just one such performance in her first 24 games.
With the seasoned Peters spending more time on the wing, it has been the newcomer Chidom who has filled in and played a large chunk of minutes at the four spot. In Jones’ absence, the freshman from California has matured quickly, averaging 20.8 minutes, 7.4 points per game, and 7.2 rebounds per game—noticeable improvements from the 13.1 minutes, 4.9 points, and 3.5 rebounds that she averaged prior to Jones’ injury.
“At first, my freshman year, I was going to take it as a learning experience,” Chidom said. “Then given our situation, I just had to grow up like that—no time to learn. It’s funny, they call me a sophomore now, and they’re always preaching that I’m not a freshman.”
Whether it be a veteran senior leader or an inexperienced freshman, Duke’s post players have shouldered the bulk of the offensive burden as the team persevered through adversity. Along with the consistent performance of Williams—who earned All-ACC First Team and All-ACC Defensive Team honors with 14.0 points, 7.5 rebounds, and a conference-leading 3.0 blocks per game—Peters and Chidom give the Blue Devils a frontcourt that has the potential to dominate opponents in the NCAA tournament. It has been a bumpy road thus far, but Duke still sees a path to the Final Four for itself.
“At the beginning of the season, we had our ambitions for a national championship,” Chidom said. “Those ambitions are still there, despite who we have playing on the court.”