ANN ARBOR, Mich.—For the first time all season, Duke won a game by less than 20 points.
Streaky play allowed Michigan to climb back from an early first-half deficit, but the Blue Devils (5-0) never trailed the Wolverines (5-2) and led by double-digits for almost the entire second period.
Despite dominating the second half and coasting to their fifth win of the season, the Blue Devils—for the first time this year—entered the locker room at halftime with a close game on their hands.
After jumping out to a 13-2 lead, Duke did not make a field goal for the last 6:38 of the opening period and led by just three points heading into the second half. The Wolverines finished the first period on a 15-1 run, energizing their home fans and giving Duke the closest thing it has had to a scare so far in this young season.
“We weren’t playing Duke basketball,” junior guard Chelsea Gray said. “We only had two offensive rebounds in the first half and five free throw attempts. We were just making bonehead mistakes.”
For the first time this year, the Blue Devils stepped onto the court to start the second half with an opponent legitimately challenging them.
Led by Gray and sophomore center Elizabeth Williams, both preseason Player of the Year candidates, the Blue Devils stormed out of the locker room and proved that they could take a punch and respond—going on a 21-6 run to start the second half.
“That was Duke basketball,” Duke head coach Joanna P. McCallie said. “That was much more hard nosed. You could see that in the rebounding, the shot selection, and also just leading the team. Chelsea made some tough shots during that stretch, and [Elizabeth] was rebounding and adding a three-point play or two. That was sending the proper message I hope, trying to be a dominant team.”
Williams, still fighting through a right leg injury, came up huge for the Blue Devils in her first start of the season. After averaging just 18 minutes per game prior to playing Michigan, Williams stayed on the floor for 29 minutes against the Wolverines, making a season-high for the sophomore.
“It felt really good,” Williams said. “I was really excited to come out at the beginning of the game rather than sitting and watching for a bit and then coming out. I just tried to be really aggressive.”
Williams’ aggressiveness left Michigan without a way to contain her, as the sophomore center scored 19 points, oftentimes fighting through double teams from the smaller Wolverine defenders. Williams also made her presence felt on the defensive side of the ball, pulling down seven boards and posting two blocks on the night.
Gray proved too much for Michigan to handle as well, adding 19 points and dishing out five assists. Gray’s five steals, four of which came in the first half, translated into offensive opportunities for Duke, which struggled at times to score in its half-court sets against the Wolverine’s 2-3 zone.
“This is a great group, a very quick group—in speed and lateral quickness,” McCallie said. “They’ve really worked hard in the weight room, and when they get together, whether it’s trapping or some of the other things we like to do, it really shows. We have to use that to our advantage, and I think we did that tonight.”
The Blue Devils’ defense, which forced 20 Michigan turnovers, allowed them to go on big runs at the start of both halves. But for McCallie’s squad to be successful once it gets to the heart of the schedule—facing No. 2 Connecticut, No. 10 California and No. 22 North Carolina—the Blue Devils will have to maintain their defensive intensity for the entire game.
Despite exhibiting spurts of sloppy offensive play and lack of defensive pressure, Duke can draw three very important conclusions from its matchup against the Wolverines.
Firstly, the Blue Devils proved that they can win multiple road games in a short span of time—Duke beat Xavier Sunday night in Ohio before traveling to Michigan for Wednesday’s game.
Secondly, Gray and Williams proved once again that they can take over a game single-handedly. Although the Blue Devils received important scoring contributions and defensive performances from a host of players, Gray and Williams were the players who asserted their will to give Duke its comfortable first and second half leads.
Thirdly, Alexis Jones continues to impress as the only freshman to start for McCallie. Jones, who has started every game this year, scored nine points and recorded eight assists to just three turnovers. The Irving, Texas native also proved vital in pressuring the Wolverine guards, forcing them into traps which resulted in turnovers.
The honeymoon is over for the Blue Devils. The Golden Bears—the first ranked opponent on Duke’s schedule—will come to Cameron Indoor Stadium on December 2nd. But the Blue Devils gained valuable experience against Michigan, which reminded Duke that it will have to play a full forty minutes if it wants to compete with the best teams in the country and make a run for the NCAA title.