Stevens' double-double sends Duke women's basketball to Sweet 16
After a premature end to their season at home in the Round of 32 last year, the Blue Devils made sure it did not happen two years in a row.
In a come-from-behind victory, fourth-seeded Duke pushed past fifth-seeded Mississippi State 64-56 Sunday afternoon in Cameron Indoor Stadium. Freshman Azura Stevens notched yet another double-double, leading the Blue Devils with 22 points, 10 rebounds, two blocks and an assist.
“This team is very special,” Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “They have chemistry, they’re focused and they want to do well. No team deserves it more.”
Duke (23-10) got out to a hot start, scoring four unanswered points before Bulldogs guard Dominique Dillingham drained a three from the corner nearly three minutes into the game. The Blue Devils’ stout defense left Mississippi State (27-7) scoreless from the paint in the first 10 minutes of the half, but the Bulldogs went 4-of-7 from beyond the arc.
Duke had a four-minute scoring drought in the middle of the half but sophomore Kendall Cooper broke the dry spell with a beautiful cut to the basket on which she was fouled. She converted on the three-point play and spurred momentum for a Blue Devil comeback. An easy layup from Stevens tied the game with 4:35 remaining in the half and a trey from redshirt freshman Rebecca Greenwell handed the lead back to Duke. The Bulldogs quickly responded with a 3-pointer of their own, and the two teams went into the final media timeout of the period tied at 21-21.
“[The freshmen] have been great,” said senior Elizabeth Williams, who added 12 points and nine rebounds. “Azura was tough inside today and she was really tough to guard. [Greenwell] was consistent…and found her flow. It’s really nice when the freshmen can step up.”
Despite a quick layup from Williams, the momentum was in Mississippi State’s favor after the Bulldogs retaliated with back-to-back jumpers. Mississippi State freshman Victoria Vivians ended the half by connecting from deep with five seconds remaining. At the half, fourth-seeded Duke trailed the Bulldogs 28-24.
The much-anticipated matchup between Williams and Mississippi State center Martha Alwal did not disappointed. Alwal made her presence known early on, stuffing Williams on her first drive to the basket. But he Virginia Beach, Va., native found her footing after the first media timeout and powered past the 6-foot-4 senior for her first two points of the contest.
Williams and the Blue Devils' post defense held Alwal to four points on 2-of-9 shooting. After posting nine blocks against Albany, Williams had no blocks in the first 20 minutes of play and two in total—Alwal finished the game with four.
“Elizabeth’s game was steady, focused and aggressive,” McCallie said. “Her defense was incredible. She owned the paint and took a lot of sightlines away with her stances.”
Stevens—the second half of Duke’s dynamic post tandem—made history in Sunday’s contest. Going into the game, she needed three rebounds to claim the Blue Devil freshman record for most rebounds in a season. She had 10 rebounds in the win, giving her 268 on the season and the freshman record.
The first 10 minutes of the second half consisted of alternating streaks for both teams. Although Stevens opened the half with an early layup, all of the energy was with the Bulldogs, who managed to retain their lead until there was 12:25 left in the game.
“We really tried to come out in the second half with an attack mentality but also with a high IQ,” Greenwell said. “That really showed and helped us go on some good runs."
From that point on, it was Duke's game. A layup from Stevens, a jumper from Williams and back-to-back drives down the lane from senior Ka’lia Johnson gave Duke a 46-39 lead with nine minutes remaining in the contest. For what felt like the first time all afternoon, Cameron Indoor Stadium was loud—with Blue Devil fans making the noise.
Duke’s momentum did not disappear after a Mississippi State timeout. The Blue Devils extended their run to 12 unanswered points, forcing Bulldog head coach Vic Schaefer to call another timeout with 7:51 left. Mississippi State was finally able to end its shooting lull with a trey from Morgan William, only for Stevens to return the favor with a trey on the other end.
“[Stevens] was absolutely fantastic,” McCallie said. “You have to be really strong [to play 40 minutes] and pull the numbers that she did.”
Duke strung together a 26-5 run over a 10:34 minute span without the efforts of Cooper, who went to the locker room with what appeared to be a leg injury with 14:40 remaining in the game. The Blue Devils already have a short bench after the departure of freshman Sierra Calhound and injuries to freshman Lynee Belton and sophomore Oderah Chidom. Fortunately for Duke, Cooper returned to the game sporting a brace on her left knee with five minutes left on the clock.
The Bulldogs resorted to fouling with two minutes left in the game. Mississippi State was clearly frustrated, culminating in Schaefer receiving a technical foul with just more than a minute left. Despite struggling from the charity stripe, the Blue Devils closed out the game and warded off a comeback attempt from the Bulldogs.
"We just had great energy and focus," McCallie said. "This team has worked so hard. They deserve everything in my opinion. We're very excited to be moving forward."
Duke will travel to Spokane, Wash., March 28 for the Sweet 16. The Blue Devils will take on the winner of top-seeded Maryland and undefeated Princeton.