LEXINGTON, Ky.—When both teams bleed blue, there is going to be a lot at stake. For Duke, Sunday’s game was its third chance to earn a statement win against a ranked opponent this season—and for the third time, the Blue Devils came up short.
Playing in a packed Rupp Arena, No. 8 Kentucky defeated No. 13 Duke 71-61, led by center Evelyn Akhator’s team-high 18 points. Eight first-quarter turnovers slowed the Blue Devils out of the gate, allowing Kentucky to grab the early lead. A strong team showing on the boards helped the Blue Devils edge back within striking distance, but Wildcat guards Janee Thompson and Makayla Epps came alive in the second half, finishing with 17 points apiece to keep Kentucky unbeaten.
"There are some great lessons for us in this," Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. "We’ve played a great schedule. Kentucky is certainly an excellent team—we played some other pretty good ones too—and we’ll learn from it."
The Blue Devils (9-3) overcame early turnover troubles to battle Kentucky neck-and-neck for much of the first half. Freshman guards Crystal Primm and Kyra Lambert buoyed their team on the offensive end, providing 10 of their team’s 13 first-quarter points. For the game, Duke's rookies scored 33 of the 61 points.
Primm had her best game in a Blue Devil uniform, finishing with a career-high 15 points on 6-of-7 shooting,
"I’m very proud of Primm,” McCallie said. "She’s the only player on our team who played a role…. She played her role and gave what she could give to the game. I hope that is something that something that she can build off of.”
Star sophomore Azurá Stevens scored a team-high 17 for Duke, 13 of which came after halftime. But redshirt sophomore Rebecca Greenwell's de facto homecoming was not as pleasant.
Greenwell—who grew up less than three hours from Lexington—took just two shots in the first half and headed to the locker room with one point. The Owensboro, Ky., native entered Sunday's game as Duke's second-leading scorer at 14.5 points per game and got a few more looks in the second half, but could not get anything to fall, finishing 0-of-6 from the floor to finish with just the single free-throw. Just three days after scoring a career-high 26 points against Liberty, Greenwell's rough shooting night left the Blue Devils looking for answers on the offensive end.
"[Rebecca] sometimes plays too fast, we can’t slow her down," McCallie said. "She has to learn how to come off screens and she also had to slow down and pull up jumpers. You can’t always get to the rack, you can’t always shoot a three. The midrange game is a very unused game in the women’s game, and the midrange game would help her tremendously.”
Down low, the Blue Devils fell into early foul trouble—junior Oderah Chidom was whistled for two personals in the first 29 seconds of the game, and redshirt freshman Lyneé Belton picked up three first-half fouls. This made guarding Akhator an issue for Duke, as the Lagos, Nigeria, native dominated the interior, scoring 12 of her team’s first 16 points.
A poor shooting night by the Blue Devils did nothing to help the situation. Duke hit its mark just 36.7 percent of the time and finished the game 2-of-13 from long range. The Wildcats (10-0) did not take many triples, but when they did, they were efficient, making 5-of-9 attempts from beyond the arc and shooting 48.3 percent overall.
Still, Duke had its chances to cut into the Kentucky lead. The Blue Devils trimmed the deficit to 59-54 with 7:18 left on a jumper by freshman Angela Salvadores—who scored nine points—but then endured a scoring drought of nearly five minutes, eliminating any momentum Duke had created. Although Kentucky only scored four points during the stretch, the Blue Devils ran out of time to complete the comeback.
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"We were really trying to get [the lead] back on defense," Stevens said. "That’s usually how we get things going offensively. Just trying to get stops and closing out those stops with rebounds.”
The foul trouble hurt Duke even more with junior Kendall Cooper unavailable after the program announced Saturdaythat the forward will not be enrolled in classes in the spring. Although Duke’s rebounding advantage ballooned to 38-28 by game's end, the short-handed squad was unable to overcome 17 turnovers that which turned into 21 Wildcat points.
"I liked our rotation,” McCallie said. “[But] our post defense was horrible at the start. We just let people catch the ball, turn and shoot, and that gave Kentucky a lot of confidence when they were scoring inside. I don’t think that’s a factor of any one person—that’s a factor of not being aggressive enough to not take away the ball."
With just two games left before the start of ACC play, Duke will look to learn from its three defeats against ranked opponents. The Blue Devils took then-No. 12 Texas A&M to overtime in November before falling at home, and hung with then-No. 2 South Carolina on the road before the Gamecocks seized control in the fourth quarter. Sunday's game featured more of the same—Duke had its chances, but could not make enough plays down the stretch to notch a signature win.
Following a short break for the holidays, the Blue Devils will reconvene Dec. 29 at Cameron Indoor Stadium to face Western Carolina.