BLACKSBURG, Va.—Duke blew past its first four ACC opponents by a combined score of 318-212. Sunday’s margin of victory against Virginia Tech: four.
The Blue Devils have previously demonstrated that they can cruise to victory but managed to edge a scrappy Hokie team on the road—even when the momentum was in the home team's corner.
“I sensed that [Duke was surprised], I did,” Virginia Tech forward Uju Ugoko said. “They have something to lose, we have something to lose to, but not like [Duke] has something to lose.”
Duke has not yet played the heart of its conference schedule, which includes road games at No. 17 Florida State, No. 2 Notre Dame and No. 9 North Carolina, but the Blue Devils passed an important road test on Sunday.
Everything was going as planned in the first 20 minutes. Duke shot 60 percent from the field. Alexis Jones, Tricia Liston and Haley Peters combined to make a flurry of 3-point shots. The Blue Devils trotted into the locker room with a 38-23 lead after a buzzer-beater by Peters put the icing on the cake.
But the final 20 minutes were some of the toughest Duke has faced all season.
Despite a 15-point deficit, the Hokies stormed back, dismantling the credibility the Blue Devil defense had earned in the first half with a second-half offensive burst that had the Blue Devils on their heels.
Not even midway through the half, the once flourishing lead was cut to just three points.
“[Virginia Tech] played a tremendous second half of basketball,” head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “We are very disappointed to ever give up 47 points in a half to anybody.”
Despite the disappointment and a poor second half, every time it seemed as if the Duke lead would crumble, the Blue Devils answered.
Jones overcame six turnovers and twice gave the Blue Devils breathing room, nailing jumpers to silence the fired-up Hokie crowd. In the final seconds, Liston knocked down two free-throws that salvaged a 12-for-25 outing for her team at the charity strike on the game.
“We do have a lot of toughness and the ability to make tough shots,” McCallie said. “Which our team did [today].”
Although had been almost a month since Duke had played in a tight game, the team showed that it had not lost its ability to win close contests.
“It is a good test for us,” Liston said. “And that is something that we need to have to keep us on our toes and handle the end-game situation like we had to today.”
A good test—because the Blue Devils have their share of challenges ahead.
Seven out of Duke’s remaining 11 games are against ranked opponents. Only two of them do not have a winning record. And even what seemed like one of the schedule’s weakest links did not go down without a fight.
“Their three go-to players were alive and well,” McCallie said. “They are the best 0-4 ACC team I have ever seen.”
Even though senior guard and two-time All-American Chelsea Gray did not even make the trip to Blacksburg, the Blue Devils refused to make excuses for Sunday’s close-call.
“This is about us,” McCallie said. “This has nothing to do with one person. When you give up 47 second-half points that is a team-defensive lack of intensity. That is a bunch of different people, not just one.”
Duke may have been caught off guard. Gray may have been out. It took effort from everyone to squeak past Virginia Tech.
But one thing is clear—the Blue Devils are ready to win by 30 or three. Duke will need to do both if it plans on making a deep postseason run this year.