In front of 23,706 fans—the largest crowd for a women's basketball game in state history—senior Tricia Liston scored 28 points to lead the Blue Devils to victory.LEXINGTON, Ky.—Duke shone bright when thrust into the spotlight Sunday afternoon in basketball-crazed Lexington, Ky.
No. 2 Duke fended off a late-game comeback by the No. 5 Wildcats to escape a sold-out Rupp Arena with a 69-61 victory, avenging its 2011 loss to Kentucky in that same venue.
"It was a great crowd, super crowd for women's basketball," Blue Devil head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. "Last time we came there wasn't that crowd. There was a big crowd, but not that crowd. I was really proud of our team's poise and composure."
Using its size advantage and physicality, Duke dominated the first half and headed into the locker room with a 36-24 lead. Though Blue Devils would maintain the lead for the entire second half, Kentucky would not go down without a fight.
With 6:35 to play, Janee Thompson banked in her eighth point of the game to cut Duke's lead to 59-53. After a Blue Devil turnover, Thompson went hard to the basket again, drew a foul and knocked down both her free throws to bring the Wildcats within four and raise the decibel level in Rupp Arena.
Then it was Tricia Liston's turn to put the game back in Duke's hands. Liston, who played all but one minute of the game, streaked down the court and converted an easy layup to put the Blue Devils back on top by six. The Wildcats failed to score on their ensuing possession, then Liston converted a three-point play to increase Duke's lead to nine, effectively killing Kentucky's comeback hopes.
"We just got more focused on staying into what we needed to do, like taking care of the ball and getting stops on defense rather than worrying about getting too tight," Liston said. "We needed to make sure that we didn't get too involved with the crowd and everything else that was going on. I think we did a really good job of staying poised and sticking to our game plan."
With just nine seconds left in the game, Liston sank two foul shots to put Duke up by eight, and the record-setting crowd in Rupp Arena started to head for home. The senior notched her sixth 20-plus point game this season and finished one point shy of tying her career high.
"Tricia's leadership was incredible," McCallie said. "She is a very, very smart basketball player with a lot of experience. She was huge for us in terms of gluing the team together and making plays happen."
After a strong offensive start to the game for both teams, the scoring leveled off as the first half wore on. Kentucky and Duke came into Sunday's contest averaging 96.2 and 86.3 points per game, respectively, but turnovers by the Blue Devils and poor shooting by the Wildcats held both teams well below their normal first half scoring totals. Duke committed 11 turnovers in the opening period, and the Wildcats shot just 28.6 percent from the field.
Kentucky's leading scorer and second-best rebounder, DeNesha Stallworth, had surgery to repair loose cartilage in her knee following the Wildcats' four-overtime thriller against Baylor two weeks ago and was not available for Sunday's game. With Stallworth out of action, Duke used its size advantage to dominate the paint in the first half, out-rebounding Kentucky 26-16. Liston pulled down five boards, and Elizabeth Williams and Haley Peters grabbed four apiece. The Blue Devils also outscored the Wildcats 22-14 in the paint. Williams used her size to dominate the interior, and Liston took advantage of Kentucky's smaller backcourt to drive to the rim and get to the foul line on her way to 12 first-half points.
"It was a big advantage," Williams said about the size differential between the Blue Devils and Wildcats. "Not only were the post players able to post up, but our guards were able to get buckets in the lane, which also helped us get to the foul line. It was really good for us."
Williams and senior guard Chelsea Gray sat much of the first half with two fouls, and foul trouble would continue to plague the Blue Devils throughout the game. Williams and Gray would get into foul trouble again in the second half, and would play just 23 and 29 minutes, respectively.
Despite her foul issues, Williams had no problem with offensive production in her limited time on the floor. The junior poured in 17 points, grabbed eight boards and recorded three blocks. Gray on the other hand had a quiet day, scoring just four points and dishing out six assists.
But even Duke's foul troubles and the pressure of Kentucky's full court press could not limit the Blue Devils on the offensive end. Utilizing a size advantage at almost every position on the floor, Duke bullied its way into 40 points in the paint and 44.1 percent shooting from the field.
The Blue Devils also limited the Wildcats to 33.3 percent shooting and held Kentucky to its lowest score of the season.
For Duke, Sunday's victory was especially important because it marked the Blue Devils last game until 2014 and capped off a rigorous stretch of non-conference play, including a loss to top-ranked Connecticut. It also proved that Duke can knock off top-ranked opponents, even away from the friendly confines of Cameron Indoor Stadium.
"To be a special special team, you've got to do special things," McCallie said. "Winning at California. Winning at Oklahoma. Winning at Kentucky. Sending messages that we are trying to be a very special team."