Duke women's basketball seeks Sweet 16 berth against Mississippi State

Elizabeth Williams and the Blue Devils will battle a tough Mississippi State team Sunday for a trip to Spokane Wash., and the Sweet 16.
Elizabeth Williams and the Blue Devils will battle a tough Mississippi State team Sunday for a trip to Spokane Wash., and the Sweet 16.

After a nail-biting finish in the first round of the NCAA tournament Friday, the Blue Devils will try to outcompete an up-and-coming program and earn their spot in the Sweet 16.

No. 4 seed Duke will take on No. 5 seed Mississippi State at Cameron Indoor Stadium Sunday at noon. The Bulldogs were ranked No. 12 in the final AP Poll—four spots higher than the Blue Devils—despite receiving the lower tournament seeding.

"That’s a great team they’ve got there,” Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “They’re a very good team. They’re so deep. It’s interesting how deep they go, and how they just keep bringing players at you.”

After losing nine regular season games away from home, Duke is fortunate to be hosting the first and second rounds of the tournament on their home court—where the Blue Devils dropped only one contest to then-No. 1 South Carolina. Thirteenth-seeded Albany threatened to give Duke its second home loss of the season Friday, but redshirt freshman Rebecca Greenwell connected on a 3-pointer with 15 seconds remaining to put the Blue Devils ahead by one and secure their spot in the Round of 32.

Duke (22-10) faces an even bigger threat from an emerging Mississippi State squad, which made program history this season with a record number of wins and within the SEC. The Bulldogs’ No. 5 seed marks their second-highest seeding in program history.

“Mississippi State is trending in a beautiful way,” McCallie said. “They’ve got great players and you’ve just got to play the game. We’ve just got to figure some things out.”

Freshman Azura Stevens will look to lead Duke to the Sweet 16 with another solid game in the paint.

One of Mississippi State’s biggest strengths is its ability to force turnovers. The Bulldogs (27-6) rank 13th in the country in turnover differential—a category the Blue Devils have struggled in all season. Duke turned the ball over a season-high 27 times against the Great Danes in the first round of the tournament, leading to 33 of Albany's 52 points.

The Blue Devils have had issues in the backcourt for much of this year because they do not have a traditional point guard. Duke has employed an inside-out strategy of play, relying upon the dangerous tandem of senior and four-time All-American Elizabeth Williams and freshman Azura Stevens. As one of the tallest frontcourt duos in the country, the pair has dominated the post. But unlike other opponents they have faced this season, Mississippi State has good matchups for the Blue Devils down low.

“[Martha Alwal] is super,” McCallie said of Mississippi State's 6-foot-4 center. “She takes out Elizabeth [Williams]’s size, wipes that out. [6-foot-1 Breanna Richardson] plays like she’s 6-3. [6-foot-1 Victoria Vivians] plays like she’s 6-2. They have all the size they need. They’re a very good team.”

The Blue Devils will need to contain Vivians, the Bulldogs' leading scorer. The freshman averages 14.8 points and 5.0 rebounds per game, but 12th-seeded Tulane managed to hold her to seven points in its first round contest against Mississippi State Friday.

Williams will match up against Alwal, who stands an inch taller than the Virginia Beach, Va., native. The Bulldog senior averages 9.7 points and 6.7 rebounds per contest on the season. Like Williams, Alwal is known for her shot-blocking ability—posting 2.5 swats per game—and is currently the SEC’s active career leader with 257 blocks.

“I think it will be a really good matchup,” Williams said. “She’s just a big body, you know, she does a good job of ducking in and getting those rebounds. Similar to [Friday] it’s going to be important to keep their posts off the boards and stay really active on defense.”

Senior Ka'lia Johnson was held scoreless in the first round win against Albany.

The deciding factor for the Blue Devils could once again be their three-point shooting. Against Albany, Duke shot 58.3 percent from downtown, and guards Ka’lia Johnson and Greenwell will play key roles in Duke’s success if the Bulldogs are able to slow down the Blue Devils in the post. Although Greenwell had no issue scoring Friday afternoon with a team-high 20 points on six 3-pointers, the Great Danes held Johnson scoreless.

It will not be easy, though, as Mississippi State head coach Vic Schaefer's team has the nation’s third-best three-point defense, holding opponents to just 24.4 percent shooting from deep on the season. In years past, Duke has typically been one of the top three-point shooting teams in the country, but this year has been anything but typical for the Blue Devils. They shot just 18.1 percent shooting from beyond the arc in the five games leading up to the NCAA tournament and will have to significantly improve its perimeter shooting against the Bulldogs' stingy defense.

“[Schaefer] is a defensive mastermind and he knows that we don’t have any point guards,” McCallie said. “I think he’s in a good seat, so to speak. But I’m excited for our kids to meet that challenge. He’s one of the best defensive coaches in the country.”

With a win Sunday, the Blue Devils would earn the opportunity to play in the Sweet 16 after missing out on the tournament's second weekend last year. They would face the winner of No.1 Maryland and No. 8 Princeton March 28 in Spokane, Wash.


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