With All-American point guard Chelsea Gray out for the season, the Blue Devils find themselves in a familiar situation.
This marks the second consecutive season that Gray’s year has ended prematurely because of injuries. As No. 3 Duke prepares to host Virginia at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Cameron Indoor Stadium, it will be relying on a combination of Alexis Jones, Richa Jackson and Chloe Wells to pick up the slack at the point guard position.
“We’ve enjoyed the development of all of our guards,” head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “They’re all very, very capable of playing the point, running the point and doing different things.”
When Gray went down with a knee injury last year, Jones led the team to the Elite Eight and earned the ACC Tournament MVP Award. Now in her sophomore year, Jones has been a much more consistent scoring threat—her 12.2 points per game are third on the team and up almost three points per game from last year—and has benefitted from playing alongside Gray. She appears ready to take the next step and assume the role of floor general that Gray played so well.
“You want your guards to be versatile and to take charge,” McCallie said. “That’s the big key.”
The Blue Devils (16-1, 3-0 in the ACC) will be transitioning into life without Gray against a dangerous opponent in the Cavaliers (8-8, 1-2). Virginia overcame a 17-point deficit to defeat in-state rival Virginia Tech. The following game, the Cavaliers nearly pulled off a shocking upset of No. 2 Notre Dame—one of Duke’s main competitors for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament—in a 79-72 loss.
The strong showing could give Virginia the needed confidence to successfully pull off an upset.
“They’re a very good team. They’ve played well,” McCallie said. “They gave Notre Dame a great game.”
Virginia’s four-guard offense will challenge a Duke defense that has been stifling opponents since conference play began, though the dynamics may change without Gray, their savvy senior leader.
The Blue Devils have held ACC opponents to just 29 percent shooting from the field and 52.3 points per game. Their perimeter defense will be put to the test against a quick Cavalier lineup that likes to create mismatches off the dribble.
“The defining characteristic of their entire team is that they all dribble and put it on the floor,” McCallie said. “I’m excited about it because it will really challenge our man-to-man defense in terms of our help-side defense and our ball pressure.”
Virginia’s biggest threat from the outside is Faith Randolph, who head coach Joanne Boyle—who enjoyed a prolific career playing for Duke in the 1980s—uses as a dynamic weapon off the bench. The sophomore guard has started only four games this year, but still ranks second on the team with an average of 12.1 points per game. She erupted for a career-high 23 points in the upset bid against Notre Dame, and certainly has the potential to have another big game Thursday.
Down in the post, 6-foot-2 Sarah Imovbioh presents a stiff test for Duke junior Elizabeth Williams. Imovbioh is shooting an impressive 54 percent from the field to go along with her average of 8.3 rebounds per game. Williams has been playing extremely well of late, pulling down double-digit rebounds in each of her last four contests, so the Cavaliers will likely place a defensive emphasis on slowing her down.
“They’ll double down on Elizabeth—sometimes triple down—when she catches the ball,” McCallie said. “It’s really important that our other players move and are active if Elizabeth’s been double-or-triple teamed. It won’t be as easy as just throwing it down there to Elizabeth for an easy score, simply because there will be so many people in the paint. But we’ve faced that before, it’s what we face a lot.”