Loyd, Notre Dame eliminate Duke women's basketball in ACC semifinals
GREENSBORO, N.C.—Looking to knock off the tournament’s top seed, the Blue Devils did not get off to the start they wanted. Despite a late rally, Duke simply did not have enough energy to seal the deal late.
The No. 16 Blue Devils fell to the No. 2 Fighting Irish 55-49 Saturday in the semifinals of the ACC tournament. Duke managed just 15 points in the first half but came alive down the stretch with a steady diet of Elizabeth Williams, trimming the deficit to 48-43 with 3:00 left. But Notre Dame star Jewell Loyd made enough plays late to send the Fighting Irish to Sunday's title game to defend their conference crown.
“We ran out of time, we needed a longer game and we gave the first half away,” Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “One guard made the difference—Jewell Loyd is a great player and she’s the best in the country and she made the difference in the game.”
From the opening tip, Duke (21-10) struggled to find any sort of rhythm on offense. The Blue Devils started 1-of-15 from the floor and had difficulty finishing in the paint against the length of Notre Dame’s Taya Reimer and Brianna Turner. Williams was especially out of sync, finishing the first half with just four points.
"It was just silly...Put the ball in the hole and focus on what you're doing," McCallie said. "You're not messing around at this level, you're getting after it. It's going to be physical and you're going to be bumped."
With Williams struggling, Duke needed redshirt freshman Rebecca Greenwell to help pick up the slack. However, the smothering defense of Loyd—the ACC Player of the Year—kept the Blue Devils guard scoreless for the first 30 minutes of the game. Unable to find any space to operate, Greenwell finished with six points on 2-of-10 shooting.
Notre Dame (30-2) was quick to pounce on Duke’s offensive struggles early and built a sizable lead right out the gate. Led by fluid ball movement around the perimeter, the Fighting Irish went on an early 12-0 run in the first 10 minutes of the half that allowed them to build an early 14-2 lead. Similar to the first matchup between the teams, the Blue Devils were hurt by the long ball, allowing three open treys to guard Michaela Mabrey.
"We spotted them nine points with Mabrey's threes, but we just have to be ready," senior Ka'lia Johnson said.
Despite forcing 12 Notre Dame turnovers and holding the Fighting Irish to 30 percent shooting from the floor, the Blue Devils still found themselves trailing 26-15 at the half. Post entry passes intended for Williams and Azura Stevens went awry, leading to turnovers that the Blue Devils could not afford against an opponent of Notre Dame’s caliber.
"You know it's going to be a bloodbath at this level," McCallie said. "You don't wait for it to start and I think that's a little bit of a problem for us."
Facing an 11-point halftime deficit, the Blue Devils began the second half determined to force the ball into the paint at all costs and it slowly started to pay off.
Duke was able to work its way to the line by relying on Williams and Stevens down low. Williams came alive, attacking from the high post and finishing several lay-ups with her left hand. The four-time first team All-ACC selection finished with 15 points and eight rebounds. Through her dominance in the paint and with the Blue Devils defense continuing to stifle the Fighting Irish, another second half rally by the Blue Devils appeared a possibility.
"There was just an entirely different attack mode in the second half," McCallie said. "The second half we had a whole different persona. Elizabeth was outstanding in the second half and showed what she could do."
With the game in the balance, the Fighting Irish went to superstar Jewell Loyd, and the junior did not disappoint, responding to every Duke basket with a play of her own.
Time and time again, Loyd was able to work her way into the lane and finish or set up open teammates. But Duke hung tight, and after Greenwell connected on a 3-pointer, the Blue Devils found themselves within four with 2:19 remaining.
Loyd responded once again with the play of the game following a free throw attempt. After Turner missed the second of her two free throws, the ACC Player of the Year out-jumped Amber Henson for a backbreaking offensive rebound. After resetting the offense, Loyd finished the possession with a jumper that put the Fighting Irish up seven with 1:15 remaining.
“I knew the Duke players were going to pinch on the other side so I just knew I could get in there and get at least a tip-out and it just bounced right to me,” Loyd said.
With the loss, Duke will miss the ACC tournament championship game for the first time in three years and will await its NCAA tournament fate when the Selection Committee announces the 64-team field March 16.