SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - Duke's 'work hard, play hard' attitude was on exhibition this weekend in the San Juan Shootout, as the sun-kissed women's basketball team fell to Illinois 77-65 in Sunday's tournament finale.
After an intense tug of war for the lead in the first half, the 16th-ranked Blue Devils entered the locker room with a shaky three-point lead at 30-27, giving the team little room for second-half error.
The second half, however, was plagued with injuries, errors and a Illini crowd that dwarfed Duke's in both numbers and volume.
"This is a new team with two new starters... We're still finding our way," said Blue Devil coach Gail Goestenkors. "I wasn't disappointed with our effort.... A few lapses toward the end cost us. This team [Illinois] is No. 8 in the country and deserving of it."
Although the height and size advantage of the Illinois players was apparent early on in the match, it didn't become decisive until the second half.
Their size and strength advantages allowed the Illini to both out-rebound and out-score Duke, despite strong offensive efforts by all-tournament team members Michele VanGorp and Payton Black, who combined for 18 points and 14 rebounds. All of the Blue Devil starters finished in double figures, while Lauren Rice added nine points on 3-of-3 shooting off the bench.
"In the end their size really hurt us... they really out-muscled us in scoring," said point guard Hilary Howard, who also contributed 10 points.
Goestenkors added that the Blue Devils aren't likely to see this much of a size advantage in the near future.
"This must be the most physical team in the country," she said. "They're very, very good. You're not going to see anyone in the ACC that's this strong and physical."
Forward Tauja Catchings and guard Ashely Berggren led the way with 17 points apiece for the Fighting Illini and gave coach Theresa Grentz her 501st career victory.
Junior Nicole Erickson, who led Duke to a win last weekend over 1997 Final Four participant Notre Dame, played just 16 minutes against Illinois, finishing with just three points and one assist.
Duke easily beat its first two opponents in the Shootout, crushing Detroit Mercy 87-65 in the first round. VanGorp and Black led the way with 17 and 18 points, respectively. The duo also recorded eight rebounds apiece.
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Browne added 13 for the Blue Devils while Erickson recorded 10 assists.
Against their second round opponent, Southern Illinois, the Blue Devils dominated offensively in the first half and entered the second half with a 42-20 lead. The Salukis then went on a six-minute, 20-5 run that shook Duke's confidence.
A three-point shot by Howard rejuvenated the Blue Devils' confidence, and Duke ended its slide with seven minutes left in the game and went on to the 76-54 win.
VanGorp led the way for Duke with 17 while Erickson, Schweitzer and Rice each added 12.
Goestenkors was anything but disappointed with her team's performance in the tournament.
"This [tournament] was a building block for the ACC season," she said. "We'll learn a lot from this game, and that's what we're here for."