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Duke women's basketball looks to take down No. 2 Connecticut for first time since 2006

Freshman Azura Stevens scored 17 points to help Duke top then-No. 8 Kentucky, and will look to put together a similar performance against the No. 2 Huskies Monday night.
Freshman Azura Stevens scored 17 points to help Duke top then-No. 8 Kentucky, and will look to put together a similar performance against the No. 2 Huskies Monday night.

After recording their first win against a ranked opponent this season, the Blue Devils head north looking to extend their three-game winning streak against the defending national champions.

No. 10 Duke will face a difficult challenge against No. 2 Connecticut at 9 p.m. at the XL Center in Hartford, Conn. The Blue Devils enter Monday’s game coming off of a 89-68 win against then-No. 8 Kentucky, and are seeking their first road win against the Huskies—winners of four of the past six national championships—since 2004.

“We have to continue to get some excellent minutes on the floor consecutively, not up and down play, but consistent play and really bring the most out in each other,” Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “If we can do that, if we can be patient, then we’re more likely to control the ball.”

In its three losses to ranked opponents this season, Duke (8-3) has played competitively for the majority of each contest, but struggled down the stretch when given the opportunity to win late in the game.

The Blue Devils made sure that problem didn't arise again with a strong finish against Kentucky. Duke led the Wildcats 49-26 after 20 minutes of play, but with 10:50 minutes left in the contest the Wildcats had managed to cut the lead to just 11 points. Multiple Blue Devils retaliated, extending the lead to 17 points with a 6-0 run and putting the game out of Kentucky’s reach.

Despite the impressive finish, the Blue Devils committed 25 turnovers, which gave the Wildcats more opportunities to stick around. Giveaways have plagued Duke at times this season, including a 22-turnover performance in a one-point loss against No. 1 South Carolina Dec. 7. Facing a tenacious Connecticut defense, the Blue Devils are focused on controlling the ball, particularly in late-game situations.

“South Carolina was the first game back for Elizabeth [Williams], and we didn’t finish [well] in that game for sure,” McCallie said. “That was a great lesson for us in finishing games and executing down the stretch. In the Kentucky game, our best basketball was in the last five minutes of the game, which was a very strong finish. It was great to see progress there.”

Strong guard play will be crucial to Duke's hopes of defeating Connecticut (9-1), which has rebounded from an early-season road loss with eight straight wins, only one of which was closer than 30 points. Redshirt freshman Rebecca Greenwell has been held to just 34-percent shooting in the Blue Devils’ three losses this season. Greenwell and freshman guard Sierra Calhoun will need to have impressive performances in order to compete with the Huskies, who boast talented ball-handlers of their own in guard Moriah Jefferson and forwards Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Breanna Stewart.

Efficient play from Duke guards should open up the post for three-time All-American senior Elizabeth Williams and freshman Azura Stevens. Williams missed three games early in the season with a foot injury, and the Blue Devils certainly felt the ill effects of her absence. With Williams back and healthy, she and Stevens have dominated the post in recent games, and both scored in double-digits against Kentucky. Stevens led the team with 17 points.

“Against Kentucky, we played at a level that allowed us to play a very smart game,” McCallie said. “That intelligence and smart play is certainly something we need to take into the next game. More of our players need to play with that higher intelligence and make smarter decisions. A lot of that comes from slowing down at critical times to make good judgments and to execute.”

The Blue Devils will rely upon their size advantage in taking on the reigning champions. Duke averages 33.5 defensive rebounds and 19.4 offensive rebounds per game and will have to live up to its reputation as the top rebounding team in the nation if it is going to pull off the upset.

But the Huskies will certainly challenge the Blue Devils on the glass. Four of Connecticut’s starters average 4.0 or more rebounds per game, and feature one of the tallest front lines Duke will face this season. Duke leads the nation in rebounding margin at 21.4 boards per game, but Connecticut rounds out the top 10 in that category. Against the Gamecocks—ranked eighth in rebounding margin—the Blue Devils only won the battle on the glass 48-40.

Connecticut's success on the boards, coupled with incredible shooting efficiency—all of the Huskies’ starters average more than 10.0 points per game to power the nation's highest-scoring offense—will test Duke unlike any other team the Blue Devils have faced thus far.

At 6-foot-4, Stewart—the reigning Naismith Player of the Year—leads a tall Connecticut front line with 16.8 points per game and ranks second on the team with 7.5 rebounds per contest. Containing Stewart and Mosqueda-Lewis—a 53.1 percent long-range shooter—will be top priorities for a Duke defense that is only giving up 55.9 points per game.

The last time these two teams met, they were the top two ranked teams in the country. Top-ranked Connecticut defeated Duke at Cameron Indoor 83-61. The Blue Devils have not defeated the Huskies since their overtime win in the 2006 NCAA tournament. To snap the seven-game skid against Connecticut, Duke will need to bring the aggressiveness and poise that allowed it to withstand Kentucky's second-half run and finish off the Wildcats.


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