Connecticut continues to present a puzzle for Duke women's basketball
When the Blue Devils failed to compete in a 22-point loss to reigning national champion in Connecticut, the questions seemed to dominate the answers. This experienced Duke squad continues to struggle against the Huskies on the big stage, falling in front of a packed Cameron Indoor Stadium on national television against the No. 1 team in the country.
Since 2007, when head coach Joanne P. McCallie began her tenure at Duke, the Blue Devils have lost to Connecticut in all seven of their meetings by an average of nearly 30 points. Even though Duke was ranked No. 2 in the nation heading into this matchup, the gap between the Huskies and Blue Devils Tuesday night was a wide one.
"I thought with Duke being at home, and they got a bunch of upperclassmen that have been through it a few times, it would be a little bit different," Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma said. "It was a little bit different. It wasn't like what happened last year at our place."
The question for McCallie and her players is not just when they will, but if they will get over the hump against Connecticut. In front of a vivacious Huskie crowd in Storrs, Conn., last season, Duke let a competitive first half slip into a 30-point blowout. Even in front of a loud home crowd Tuesday night, the Blue Devils did not have the answers for Connecticut's runs. Duke was able to claw within 13 points in the second half, but failed to make plays when it needed it the most.
After his team's victory, Auriemma pointed out that a team cannot win a game in five minutes, but it certainly can lose one. It seemed Duke's five minutes to lose were an eight-minute span in the first half when Connecticut went on a 16-1 run to widen its lead to 28-12.
"There are lapses in our energy, in our intensity throughout the game," senior forward Haley Peters said. "We do that in the other games, but we can get away with it in those games. We haven't pushed each other enough in that and not letting it happen no matter who we're playing. When you do that against [Connecticut], you're going to put yourself in a hole."
Duke's ball movement struggled as the Blue Devils failed to find offensive structure against the Huskie defense, managing just 13 assists on 27 field goals. Twenty-five of Connecticut's 30 field goals were assisted. The biggest beneficiary of the Huskies' offensive flow was guard Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, who returned to the lineup after missing a month due to an elbow injury and hit 7-of-11 shots from beyond the arc in a 21-point performance off the bench.
"When we started executing, reversing the ball and playing off each other is when our runs came," senior guard Chelsea Gray said. "We were getting good looks, and we were getting good shots. Some didn't fall. However, when we would take one bad shot or not execute the plays and stay with our mental focus—focusing on what we needed to do offensively—that's when it translated to their run."
Connecticut is no ordinary opponent. The Huskies play hard for a full 40 minutes, and they make their shots when presented with opportunities. The pressure, unlike most games for the Blue Devils, is on Duke rather than its opponent to force the issue.
"At times they played exceptionally well—like the kind of team I thought we would face coming in here," Auriemma said. "They made open shots, they attacked the basket, they forced a lot of turnovers—just how active they were on the defensive end—but obviously if they had done that for 40 minutes, the game would have been a lot closer. We had something to do with that."
The score and Duke's shooting percentage were not the only things that concerned McCallie. The Blue Devils managed to grab 10 offensive rebounds in the first half but were unable to secure one in the second half. Similarly, Duke earned just five trips to the charity stripe in the contest, a number McCallie said she hopes to be around 25 each game.
Hustle and effort plays will remain a focus for the Blue Devils moving forward, as improvements in those areas would signal a greater chance to compete a national championship. Should Duke hope to accomplish that ultimate goal, it will have to count on facing—and defeating—the top-ranked Huskies again to do so.
"The bigger deal is the Final Four and trying to pursue a national championship at this level," McCallie said. "This helps us in our journey to get better and figure things out. Whether its ball movement or stops on defense, there's quite a few things we can look at.... Intangibles matter. We didn't make those kind of plays. It adds fuel to the fire. Its motivating."