Impressive length leads to block party for Duke women's basketball against Winthrop

<p>Azurá Stevens recorded eight rejections Sunday&mdash;the fifth-most blocks in a single game in program history.</p>

Azurá Stevens recorded eight rejections Sunday—the fifth-most blocks in a single game in program history.

For much of the first half Sunday night, it appeared as if the Blue Devils’ defensive struggles from Friday had come back home to Durham. Azurá Stevens, however, refused to allow such a trend to continue.

After narrowly escaping Pennsylvania in Philadelphia Friday night, No. 14 Duke rolled to a win in its home opener with a 78-50 win against Winthrop. Stevens paced the Blue Devil offense with 18 points, but it was on the defensive end where she set the tone. Her career-high eight blocks came on a night when Duke tied a program record with 16 blocks as a team and limited the Eagles to just 19 points in the second half.

“[The team] talked at halftime,” Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “There was a big difference between the second half defense and the first. The aggression, the deflections, the steals, the way we pulled the ball down, it was just a night-and-day difference.”

Winthrop kept the pressure on the Blue Devils early, trimming the Duke lead to just three points with 3:30 remaining in the second quarter. Erica Williams was a key cog for the Eagles’ offense, knocking down four of her first six shots on her way to 10 first-half points. From there, Duke held its opponent to just 21 points the rest of the night.

“We all chipped in at halftime,” Stevens said. “We knew that defense was something we needed to keep working on. At this point, it’s just actually going out there and doing it.”

The Blue Devils certainly got it done. The final quarter Friday against the Quakers—one in which Duke allowed just nine points—provided flashes of their defensive capabilities, but on Sunday, they were able to sustain it.

Winthrop made just seven field goals during the final 20 minutes of play as the Blue Devils held them to 21.2 percent shooting. Stevens and fellow forward Amber Henson combined for 13 of the team’s 16 blocks and Duke dominated its opponent on the glass. The Blue Devils outrebounded the Eagles by a 51-36 margin, controlling play throughout the second half.

It’s key that we get [playing for 40 minutes] down,” McCallie said. “That’s going to be really important…. I thought we were very sloppy defensively in the first half.”

With such a young team that is still adjusting to the pace of the college game, Duke still has much to work on with a pair of top-25 matchups in the next four weeks. Defense will certainly be at the forefront when the Blue Devils face off against No. 13 Texas A&M Wednesday and again when they travel to face No. 2 South Carolina Dec. 6.

Duke turned up its intensity on defense from the outset, pressing for most of the game and at times utilizing a half-court trap that forced 20 Winthrop turnovers. Stevens and freshman guard Haley Gorecki  registered half of the Blue Devils’ 12 steals, clipping the Eagles’ momentum at key points throughout the night.

Duke also made a lineup change Sunday, starting sophomore Erin Mathias in place of Henson, giving new faces a chance to contribute to the team’s second game in a 48-hour span.

“In basketball, you have to really be clever in getting your mind and your body ready,” McCallie said. “We’re still working on that, getting in the right places and right focus, and once we do that, our turnovers will drop considerablyour offense will shoot up and our defense will be very good too.”

Mathias registered six points and six rebounds in just 13 minutes. All but one of the Blue Devils pulled down a rebound on the night, only strengthening the team defensive effort that both McCallie and Stevens emphasized.

“I thought we did a really good job in the second half of stopping them consecutively,” Stevens said. “No matter how many points we score, it’s going to come down to how many the other team scores."

Mitchell Gladstone | Sports Managing Editor

Twitter: @mpgladstone13

A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak." 


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