After winning their two preseason games by a combined 197 points, not much changed in the Blue Devils’ first two games of the regular season. With the return of star center Elizabeth Williams, Joanne P. McCallie’s team crushed two undersized opponents, Presbyterian and Iona, in less than 24 hours.
Saturday night, No. 3 Duke ran out to to a 17-6 lead against Presbyterian and never look back defeating the Blue Hose 84-45 at Cameron Indoor Stadium. In a quick turnaround, Duke faced Iona at Cameron Indoor Sunday afternoon, defeating the Gaels 100-31.
Duke’s extraordinary talent and physical strength were on display in both games as the Blue Devils (2-0) combined to outrebound and outpass their opponents by a combined 33 rebounds and 30 assists.
“They’re the third-ranked team in the country for a reason. [They’re] very talented,” Presbyterian head coach Ronny Fisher said.
Duke controlled both games on the defensive side of the ball both in full and half court setups as each scholarship player recorded at least five rebounds against Iona. Despite such dominance, McCallie stressed to her team the importance of continuing to play with intensity and to improve the quality of on-ball defense.
“I know that we can do anything through rebounding, and that’s going to be a big key for getting the ball. I think our guards are phenomenal rebounders,” McCallie said. “The film will show a bunch of breakdowns in our defenses—clips we can really utilize when the score doesn’t matter.”
The most welcome surprise for Duke was the return of a limited Elizabeth Williams, who played 10 minutes against Presbyterian and 18 against Iona. Still recovering from a stress fracture in her foot, Williams had 32 points, 10 rebounds and seven blocks, six of which came against Iona.
“She was bouncing, which is a good sign when you’re talking about injuries,” McCallie said. “I thought she made her presence known in 18 minutes and that was a good thing. By virtue of her blocks and things, she was obviously doing pretty well.”
Duke was led in both games by the play of junior guard Chelsea Gray, whose passing ability and aggressive mentality provided the spark for the Blue Devils on both sides of the ball. A major moment in the first half of the game against Iona came when Gray drew two defenders to her in transition and passed the ball behind her head to Allison Vernerey for an open lay-up.
Gray managed Duke’s offense during both games, committing only one turnover with 14 assists in the contests. Her vision and passing ability were on display, as was the potential of freshman guard Alexis Jones, who found her teammates for multiple open shots despite having trouble with turnovers.
“[Gray] is the best passer, male or female, in this country, when she doesn’t turn the ball over and when she has eight assists like that and she can set up passes like that,” McCallie said.
Vernerey, Duke’s lone senior, was a major contributor for the Blue Devils during both contests, playing the majority of minutes at center with a limited Williams. Against Iona, Vernerey ignited Duke’s offense early, scoring 20 points in the first half, two more than the entire Iona squad. She finished with a career-high tying 22 points, adding in four blocks and five assists.
“It was wonderful to see Allison so dominant on the block, have a great shooting percentage, demanding the ball and having her teammates get the ball to her,” McCallie said.
Looking ahead, Duke will take on increasingly more competitive teams in Valparaiso and Xavier before travelling to Michigan as part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. The Blue Devils remain on track to have continued success throughout the season after a weekend of encouraging routs.
“I thought everybody contributed. I thought we got a little bit better. That’s what were trying to do, get better,” McCallie said. “Now we’ll just take a day and get on to the next game.”