You cannot teach height and you cannot teach length, but the Blue Devils are lucky enough to have plenty of both.
In its 87-45 romp over 15th-seeded Winthrop in the opening round of the NCAA tournament Saturday morning at Cameron Indoor Stadium, second-seeded Duke used its considerable height advantage to dominate the Eagles in all facets of the game.
The Blue Devils featured five players—junior center Elizabeth Williams, senior forward Haley Peters, redshirt freshman forward Amber Henson and true freshman forwards Oderah Chidom and Kendall McCravey-Cooper—that stand 6-foot-3 or taller and played double-digit minutes. By contrast, Winthrop had just one such player—6-foot-3 sophomore center Schaquilla Nunn.
After suffering a multitude of injuries at the guard position throughout the season, Duke (28-6) had little choice but to turn to a big lineup and hope that its post players would step up and make an impact.
“I was joking with coach [Al] Brown,” head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “I said, ‘Those post players, they’ve come to life,’ and that’s nice to see.”
The most important development for the Blue Devils has been the growth of Chidom and McCravey-Cooper. The duo entered the season as talented freshmen with minor roles on a veteran team, but is now playing a huge part in Duke’s success. Against Winthrop, Chidom and McCravey-Cooper combined for 31 points and 14 rebounds, including a double-double from McCravey-Cooper.
“I think Kendall and Oderah were just tremendous,” McCallie said. “They are now sophomores, they’ve informed me that they’ve moved on [from being freshmen]. They just played terrific basketball. They played well together, they played well with their teammates, and I just think that kind of performance—Kendall’s double-double—is what motivates the team.
The team was certainly motivated against the Eagles (24-9), displaying ferocity and intensity on both ends of the floor. Duke’s length in its 2-3 zone made it nearly impossible for the Eagles to find a rhythm on offense. With Peters—who tallied five steals for the game—situated at the top of the zone, the Blue Devils were able to use their collective wingspan to clog the passing lanes and contest shots both inside the paint and out on the perimeter. Winthrop struggled to get many open looks at the basket, shooting a mere 6-for-29 from the field in the opening 20 minutes and finishing at just 27 percent for the game.
Having the 6-foot-3 Peters defending on the perimeter made life especially difficult for guard Dequesha McClanahan, the Big South Conference Player of the Year. McClanahan stands just 5-foot-8, which put her at a significant disadvantage against the taller Duke defenders. She was constantly pestered by Peters’ length and defensive intensity on the outside, turning in a mediocre 7-of-20 shooting performance with an uncharacteristic six turnovers.
The Blue Devils’ height advantage paid dividends on the offensive end of the floor as well, where they enjoyed a massive 42-6 advantage in points in the paint. Winthrop—with only Nunn as a true interior defensive presence—was unable to handle Duke’s talented array of post players in the paint.
“Seemed like the French foreign legion to me,” Winthrop head coach Kevin Cook said. “They just keep bringing them in in waves.”
Duke overpowered the Eagles on the glass, grabbing more than twice as many rebounds as Winthrop and finishing with a 49-23 advantage on the boards. The Blue Devils were relentless on the glass from the opening minutes, pulling down 25 rebounds in the first half—eight of which came on the offensive end.
“They crashed the boards very well,” McClanahan said. “They’re a big group of girls, and we expected that. We didn’t crash [the boards] as well as we wanted to, and I think that was what separated us.”
This was just Duke’s sixth game with its new, longer lineup, but the Blue Devils feel as if they have adjusted seamlessly. They now present a completely different look than they did earlier in the season with guards Chelsea Gray and Alexis Jones on the floor, but Duke thinks it can be just as successful—if not moreso—with this new style of play.
“We get very excited about our potential and about what we can be,” McCallie said. “Hopefully this game provided us with direction and I like the direction we’re moving in.”