Poor shooting dooms Duke women's basketball in ACC semifinals

The Blue Devils could not find the mark from long range throughout Saturday's semifinal against Notre Dame.
The Blue Devils could not find the mark from long range throughout Saturday's semifinal against Notre Dame.

GREENSBORO, N.C.— At this point, it’s starting to look as though the Blue Devils are just unlucky against the Fighting Irish. In its previous two contests going into the ACC tournament, Notre Dame had managed to hold Duke to zero percent shooting from beyond the arc.

That’s right. Zero.

The Blue Devils got a few to go down in the semifinals of the ACC tournament Saturday, but still not enough to best one of the nation's most prolific offenses. And as Duke exited the court at the Greensboro Coliseum after a 55-49 defeat, one thing became clear: poor shooting performances are largely to blame for the Blue Devils' losses to the Fighting Irish in their five encounters as ACC foes. This contest was no exception as Duke's comeback bid fell short like many of its jumpers. The Blue Devils went 3-of-13 from distance—just 23 percent—in their latest loss to Notre Dame.

“We’ve led the nation in three-point shooting percentage for two years straight—just not this year,” head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “We don’t have three-point shooters [so] they didn’t have to defend our three-point shot.”

Duke struggled from the start of the game to generate any sort of offensive rhythm. Simply put, Notre Dame dominated the first few minutes as the Blue Devils went just 1-of-15 to start the game. They eventually managed to find a foothold in the post—although not much compared to their usual control in the paint—but they continued to struggle mightily from three-point range, as evidenced by Duke’s minimal output from its backcourt.

The Blue Devils finished the first half down by 11 to a Fighting Irish squad that was not even playing like the top-seed it was. Notre Dame committed 12 turnovers by the end of the half and only shot 30 percent from the field, yet owned a double-digit lead for much of the opening period. Duke's inability to knock down any 3-pointers in that span to loosen up the defense was a big reason why.

“In any game, you can’t wait to start playing,” senior Ka’lia Johnson said. “We just have to be ready, and today we didn’t come out ready. Of course we turned it on in the second half, but it’s tournament time—you can’t just wait around.”

Redshirt freshman Rebecca Greenwell’s game revolves around the three ball. She averaged 17.0 points in the Blue Devils’ previous four contests and seemed to be peaking at the right time. But in those last four games, she was not guarded by ACC player of the year Jewell Loyd. Loyd was absolutely relentless on both ends of the court again Saturday just as she was in the teams' first meeting, scoring a game-high 21 points and holding Greenwell—normally a leading scorer for Duke—to a mere six points.

The Owensboro, Ky., native shot 2-for-10 from the floor and only found the basket in the second half of the contest. Greenwell did, however, break Duke’s dry spell from beyond the arc with 10 minutes remaining in the game.

Ka’lia Johnson—the other staple of the Blue Devils’ backcourt—played a strong game overall despite not being known as a perimeter shooter. The senior got a triple to go when her team needed it, but as she has throughout her career did most of his damage inside—just like almost all of her teammates.

“Ka’lia was steady throughout the game,” McCallie said. “She played a smart game [even though] she had a lot to manage on the floor. Ka’lia showed a lot of poise in making good decisions and getting the ball to the right places.”

The Fighting Irish seemed to have the game locked up after Loyd took over the game in the second half, but the Blue Devils made a valiant effort to climb back into it—cutting the lead to just five points with three minutes remaining in the contest. The Duke comeback was hinged upon its rediscovery of long-range shooting.

There is no doubt that Duke is an inside-out style team—it relies upon the tandem of senior center Elizabeth Williams and freshman Azura Stevens to anchor the team in the post. Time and time again, the Blue Devils have managed to win with little to no help from other areas of the court. But there is also no doubt that Duke relies heavily upon momentum to generate its energy.

When shots from beyond the arc start dropping, the Blue Devils consistently respond with increased energy and more aggressive play on the interior. When a team is able to take that spark away—a feat Notre Dame has proven consistently that it is capable of—Duke is left reeling.

That was the case again Saturday afternoon.

“You’re not messing around at this level,” McCallie said. “You have to play two halves of good basketball. Focus on what you’re doing [and] put the ball in the hole.”

The Blue Devils finished the contest 3-13 from long range—all three of which came in the last ten minutes of the game. In the first half, Duke’s sluggish start coupled with its 26 percent shooting—zero percent from beyond the arc—ultimately lost it the game. The Blue Devils played noticeably better in the second half of the contest, outscoring the Fighting Irish 34-29. In that second half, Duke shot 38 percent shooting from the floor and 50 percent from deep.

It was clear after the game that the Blue Devils still haven't been able to shoot the ball well enough to knock off a star-studded Notre Dame squad, but for McCallie and company, a more positive lesson was also evident. If Duke is able to play with the level of intensity it did late in the game for an entire 40 minutes, the Blue Devils will be difficult to stop in the NCAA tournament.


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