Just when things finally seemed to be going Duke’s way, the unthinkable happened.
With 11:53 left in the game, sophomore guard Alexis Jones wove through the Notre Dame defense and finished a layup to bring the Blue Devils within seven. Duke’s point guard then fell to the ground, writhing in pain after her knee buckled.
Without a natural ball handler left available to play, the Blue Devils’ comeback fell short and No. 7 Duke fell 81-70 to No. 2 Notre Dame at the Purcell Pavilion at the Joyce Center in Notre Dame, Ind. When Jones exited the game, the Blue Devils had made 10-of-15 second-half field goals. Duke scored just two baskets during the next 9:30, allowing the Fighting Irish to stretch the lead to 18 and pull away.
"Notre Dame is a great team. You don't know what would have happened from there. But I guess I wish I could have seen it," Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. "She's an All-American candidate, a super sophomore and obviously we were a different team when she was gone.”
The Blue Devils (24-4, 11-3 in the ACC) looked lost to start the game, falling behind 20-2 because of sloppy turnovers, poor shot selection and porous transition defense.
Duke committed 14 first-half turnovers and allowed 13 points off those turnovers, making it seem like the Blue Devils were on their way to their second loss to the Irish by more than 20 points in the last three weeks.
"We took some bad shots, some quick shots, which fueled their transition," junior center Elizabeth Williams said. "We just need to learn to be more patient early."
Notre Dame’s seniors set the tone early. Kayla McBride had 16 points in the first period and drove the Fighting Irish (26-0, 13-0) transition attack and forward Natalie Achonwa controlled the paint, scoring 13 points.
However, after a quiet start, Williams—who failed to register a field goal in the first meeting—went to work, scoring 10 points in the final eleven minutes of the half. The Blue Devils looked like a different team offensively after getting their All-American center involved.
“I felt that [Williams] wouldn’t be denied even when she was frustrated,” McCallie said. “Even when some things didn’t go her way early, I just saw a person of great resolve. She wasn’t going to stop. She really rose to the occasion.”
Jones started pushing the ball up the court at every opportunity and Duke made seven of its next eight field goals after starting the game 1-of-10 from the field.
Although the Blue Devils were unable to slow down the Fighting Irish—who shot 53.1 percent in the first half—Duke’s offensive pace gave the Blue Devils a chance to overcome their horrific start.
After senior Richa Jackson banked in a 3-pointer from just past halfcourt at the end of the half, Duke trailed 46-32 and had grabbed the momentum by scoring six points in the last seven seconds.
“I think that the team has that resolve,” McCallie said. “I think it’s a great reflection of our leadership. They were definitely mad and frustrated, but I think we really have some folks that fight.”
Jackson and Williams each scored six quick points in the second half to bring the Blue Devils even closer. Although McBride—who had a career-high 31 points—continued knocking down shots, the Fighting Irish had no answer for Duke’s fast-paced offense.
With Notre Dame crowding Duke’s leading scorer—senior Tricia Liston—Jones took advantage of the extra room to operate. After getting Jackson, Williams and senior Haley Peters involved early in the period, the lefty took the ball coast-to-coast on consecutive possessions to make the score 62-55 before suffering the knee injury.
She would return to the court with tears in her eyes, knowing she was done for the day and her team was out of point guards. Seniors Chelsea Gray and Chloe Wells were already lost for the season. Jones finished with 15 points and six assists for the game and was consoled on the bench by her mentor, Gray.
The Blue Devils simply could not find a way to answer Notre Dame’s late baskets without a true floor general and were on the wrong side of the 15-4 run following Jones’ exit.
Notre Dame’s Jewell Loyd helped secure her team’s 50th consecutive regular season win and first ACC regular season title—scoring 21 points to complement McBride—but the sophomore’s strong game and defensive job on Liston was still overshadowed by McBride’s array of scoring moves.
“I realize that it looked easy, but it’s probably because she’s that great of a player,” McCallie said. “She’s got such a quick release. She’s a pretty smart player and she found some holes to quickly shoot it.”
The MRI on Jones’ knee Monday now has enormous implications for the Blue Devils’ postseason hopes. Very few players can bring a team back from a 20-2 deficit on the road against a top-two opponent, but that is what Jones did with her unique speed.
“This game isn’t really our focus right now,” McCallie said. “We have the health of our point guard. That’s our focus.”