It did not look pretty at the start, but the Blue Devils found their groove in the second half and were able to pull away for the victory.
No. 5 Duke knocked off Clemson 78-51 in the Littlejohn Coliseum Thursday night, overcoming a sloppy first half in which it turned the ball over 15 times and scored just 28 points.
“We made some poor decisions in the first half,” head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “Defensively, we were fine. But offensively, we should have had about 40 or more points on the board and I think that’s a good lesson for our team.”
The first half featured poor offensive displays from both teams. The Tigers (11-13, 3-7 in the ACC) began the game by going nearly five minutes without hitting a field goal, but the Blue Devils (22-2, 9-1) went through an even longer slump later in the half—six minutes ticked off the clock between Duke field goals as Clemson clawed its way back from an early 11-2 deficit.
The Blue Devils let the Tigers hang around thanks to a sluggish offense that turned the ball over 15 times in the opening period alone. This allowed Clemson—which began the game by hitting just 1-of-12 shots from the field—to keep within striking distance of Duke and take a one point lead towards the end of the half.
“We started rushing a little bit and trying to force some things instead of just moving the ball,” said senior forward Haley Peters, who led the team with 17 points. “We got ourselves into [committing] some turnovers and let them come back in the game.”
Duke came out for the second half looking like the high-powered offensive team that it had for most of the season, as opposed to the out-of-sync one it played like for the first 20 minutes. The Blue Devils returned to their usual fast-paced offense to outscore the Tigers 24-8 in the opening minutes of the second half—a run sparked by senior guard Richa Jackson, who scored eight of her 13 points during this pivotal stretch. At that point, Duke held a commanding 52-31 lead and didn’t face much of a threat the rest of the way.
“I think we just had more energy [in the second half],” Peters said. “We were cutting hard and moving the ball well when they doubled the post. Just moving the ball well, attacking, and being aggressive.”
Coming off a disappointing loss to No. 2 Notre Dame in which they allowed 88 points, Duke turned up the intensity on the defensive end of the floor. The Blue Devils applied constant pressure to the Clemson ball-handlers, keeping them out of the lane for most of the night and forcing the Tigers to take perimeter shots. The Tigers shot just 32.7 percent from the field, and their leading scorer, Nikki Dixon, contributed just 10 points of 3-of-12 shooting.
Duke was able to overcome its carelessness with the ball thanks to a quality shooting performance and an impressive effort on the glass. Duke shot 57.1 percent from the floor for the night, rebounding from a season-low 39.1 percent performance against Notre Dame. The Blue Devils also dominated on the boards, finishing with a 44-19 advantage on the glass. Senior guard Tricia Liston led the rebounding effort with 10 rebounds to go along with her 15 points for her third double-double of the season.
“We got outrebounded [against Notre Dame],” Liston said. “But today we came back and I thought we were pretty strong on the boards. So [we did] little things like that, taking smaller steps forward and making improvements.”
Duke will need to continue making improvements, with the upcoming schedule providing no margin for substandard play. The Blue Devils’ next four opponents—North Carolina, Maryland, N.C. State, and a rematch with Notre Dame—are all ranked no worse than No. 14 in the AP Poll. Some teams would negatively upon such a grueling stretch, but Duke is embracing the opportunity to compete against top-notch opponents.
“We’re excited about [our difficult schedule],” Peters said. “We want to play the best teams we can and just keep getting better.”