The last time the Blue Devils entered Gampel Pavilion undefeated, they ran into Maya Moore. Connecticut’s eventual Naismith Award winner dropped 29 points to hand Duke its first loss—an 87-51 rout that began with the Huskies on a 23-2 run. Last year’s game wasn’t much different. The Huskies came to Cameron Indoor Stadium and took down a fifth-ranked Duke team 61-45.
But things change during the course a couple years: A once young Duke squad is now led by its juniors and Moore won’t be in Storrs, Conn. this time around. Still, Duke (16-0) will need to improve upon its past few performances to stand a chance of preserving its perfect record when it takes on Connecticut (16-1) Monday at 7 p.m.
“This is going to be a dogfight for sure, and it’s definitely going to be for 40 minutes,” guard Tricia Liston said. “We can’t go in there and play 20 minutes of basketball. That’s not going to work against these good teams. You have to be ready to play for full 40, and we haven’t quite put that together yet with our best basketball.”
Teammate Chelsea Gray also acknowledged the need for a high level of execution. As one of five juniors on the team, she remembers the last trip to Storrs.
“We didn’t handle the situation when we went up there, so hopefully we’ll do a better job this time,” she said.
In 2011, the Huskies buried the Blue Devils early, jumping out to a 23-2 lead. Moore had 16 points and six boards in the first half alone.
“Could we defend Maya Moore?” head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “No. And most people couldn’t either.”
Two years removed from the graduation of Moore, Connecticut is a vastly different team, with guard Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and center Stephanie Dolson leading the way.
Mosqueda-Lewis leads the team in scoring with 17.1 points per game despite dealing with several injuries.
Dolson, the 6-foot-5 junior is averaging 13.8 points, 6.7 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game, and the Huskies run their offense through her, McCallie said.
“It’s pretty extraordinary that a post player at 6-foot-5 could handle the ball as much as she does, away from the basket and make the passes that she does,” McCallie said. “She really is central—a central cog. And I know some of the other posts do it, but no one is like her…. You can’t have that ball going in high post because that sets up too many opportunities.”
Beyond Dolson and Mosqueda-Lewis, Connecticut has an abundance of talent on both sides of the ball. The Huskies lead the nation in scoring offense and scoring defense, averaging a win margin of more 35 points per game.
“They’re most efficient,” McCallie said. “They take the fewest dribbles of anybody. They get the ball around and they move it.”
Nevertheless, the Blue Devils are not too far behind the Huskies statistically. Duke ranks seventh in the nation in scoring offense and fifth in scoring defense.
Additionally, the Blue Devils best Connecticut in the rebounding and steals category. With 13.8 steals per game, Duke ranks third nationally in the category. In last year’s matchup, the Blue Devil defense shined despite the loss. Led by six steals from Gray, Duke forced 21 turnovers from the Huskies.
With Gray averaging 3.6 steals per contest this year, the Blue Devils again have the chance to stymie Connecticut’s offense through their full-court press, especially coming off a performance against Virginia Tech in which the Hokies had more turnovers, 27, than points, 26.
“We always get steals and deflections, and we need to stay with that against them and pressure them and make them feel uncomfortable,” Liston said.
On the offensive side, Duke has benefited from sophomore Elizabeth Williams’ continued recovery. The center, who leads the squad in scoring, had to come off the bench for the first four games of the season as she came back from a stress fracture.
In her last five games, though, she’s averaging more 27 minutes and shooting 68.2 percent from the field.
“Elizabeth is finding her balance,” McCallie said. “When you’re out for a while and you come back and you’re still getting hit as usual, I think it takes a little bit to find your legs. And I think she’s finding her legs. I love when I see Elizabeth finishing with three people on her—plus the foul. She’s starting to really get back in that groove again.”
Although Duke is averaging win margins of more than 30 in their last four matches, there are causes for concern, McCallie said.
“We haven’t been learning as much as I would have liked… in the past four or five games,” McCallie said. “For us we need to grow as a team. We need to mature a little bit.”
Against Virginia Tech, the Blue Devils had just eight assists for the game. Additionally, they shot under 30 percent for the second half, struggling with the physicality of the Hokie defense as well as from poor shot selection.
“It’s a lack of focus,” McCallie said. “It’s sort of like ‘the game’s already won so let me take my shot.’ It becomes a my shot vs. our shot and it disturbs me to talk about that.”
That attitude will make succeeding against the efficient Huskies a difficult task. To end a five-game losing streak to the Huskies and remain undefeated this season, Duke will have to bring its best efforts on both ends of the floor.
“We’re going to learn a lot about the people that we are and the people that we want to be,” Liston said.