Duke women's basketball seeks ACC tournament final berth against Notre Dame
Leading 15-8 on the road in the first seven minutes Feb. 16, the Blue Devils looked like they had a chance to defeat the Fighting Irish for the first time in 17 seasons. But Duke struggle to defend the 3-pointer for the remainder of the game, falling 63-50.
The No. 16 Blue Devils will have another shot at upsetting No. 2 Notre Dame at noon Saturday in the first ACC tournament semifinal at the Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro, N.C. Duke is coming off a 77-68 victory against Wake Forest in which sophomore Kendall Cooper lead the way with a career-high 21 points and seeking a berth in the tournament final for the third consecutive season.
"I was very proud of Kendall in terms of her aggressiveness in coming off the bench and giving us such confidence and such great moves, tremendous duck ins and a lot of aggression," Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie said after Friday's win against the Demon Deacons. "You have your gifts and you have to use them, and I thought today she did. I’m very confident in a lot of our players to pull big games like that."
Despite holding Notre Dame to a season-low 63 points in the teams’ first meeting, the Blue Devils (21-9) will need to tighten up their 3-point defense to create a different outcome Saturday. Duke struggled to defend Fighting Irish guards Jewell Loyd and Madison Cable, who simply shot over the Blue Devils on the perimeter, combining to hit 7-of-15 triples in the game.
As a team, Notre Dame (29-2) connected nine times from beyond the arc, many of which were timely, allowing the Fighting Irish to retake control of the game whenever Duke made a run.
"We started the game 14-5 and were in control of that game in the first 10 minutes and then just did not manage any sense of control after that," McCallie said.
The Blue Devils—who have relied heavily on All-ACC performers Elizabeth Stevens and Azura Stevens throughout the season—will once again try to play through their stalwarts inside to control the pace of the game. In the first matchup between the teams, the duo combined for more than 60 percent of Duke’s 50 points and showed the ability to feed off each other with tremendous passing. Despite having two 6-foot-3 post players to man the paint, Notre Dame simply had no answer for the Blue Devils' size down low.
But without a solid contribution on the perimeter from senior Ka’lia Johnson or redshirt freshman Rebecca Greenwell, Duke could not keep pace with the Fighting Irish. Heading into the rematch in the semifinal, that could all change.
In the last four games, Greenwell is averaging 17.0 points per game to go along with 4.0 rebounds. With the ability to heat up in the hurry, the Owensboro, Ky., native is the perfect option beyond the arc to help spread the floor around the Blue Devils’ post players.
But in the matchup in February, Loyd—a standout All-ACC performer—stifled Greenwell, following her everywhere around the floor. The junior’s tenacious defense was the primary reason the Blue Devil guard scored only four points and took just five shots. Expect the Fighting Irish to once again follow Greenwell closely in an attempt to limit Duke’s offensive options
"Jewell Loyd made a huge difference in that game, but to me it’s a team effort," McCallie said.
Notre Dame’s defense on Greenwell and her teammates forced the Blue Devils to struggle from beyond the arc. Despite getting open looks, Duke simply struggled to connect from deep in the first matchup, going 0-of-12 from long range. Without a few timely jumpers from the Blue Devils, it will be tough once again for Duke to defeat the Fighting Irish.
"Everyone is going to have to get down and dirty and get involved, but I think that would be true of anybody we play at this juncture," McCallie said. "These teams are all very good—and they’re all very beatable, too—but they’re all very good, and so you’ve really got to bring your A game and A effort to it."
After losing to the Fighting Irish three times last year and being eliminated by Notre Dame in the Elite Eight two seasons ago, the time is now for the Blue Devils to step up and deliver a much-needed victory.