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Late run dooms Duke women's basketball against No. 2 South Carolina

<p>Sophomore Azurá Stevens struggled against the length of South Carolina's frontcourt Sunday&mdash;shooting 3-of-11 from the field&mdash;but nearly posted another double-double in the loss.</p>

Sophomore Azurá Stevens struggled against the length of South Carolina's frontcourt Sunday—shooting 3-of-11 from the field—but nearly posted another double-double in the loss.

COLUMBIA, S.C.—One year after dropping a heartbreaker to top-ranked South Carolina at home, the Blue Devils suffered the same fate on the road.

The No. 2 Gamecocks defeated No. 14 Duke 66-55 at Colonial Life Arena in a physical matchup that pitted two of the nation’s best paint players against one another. Despite falling behind at the beginning of the second half, the Blue Devils rallied and challenged for the lead until the final minutes. But a late 11-0 sprint by South Carolina and 28 points from star forward A’ja Wilson guided the Gamecocks to victory, turning a one-point deficit into a 10-point lead.

“Obviously, we didn’t do what we needed to do,” Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “It’s about playing Duke basketball for 40 minutes, and we did not do that. We really did not come close to doing that with that fourth quarter.”

After shooting 50.0 percent from the field or better in their last five contests, the Blue Devils (7-2) struggled to put up points against the Gamecocks’ stifling man-to-man defense. Entering the contest as Duke’s leading scorer in the backcourt, redshirt sophomore Rebecca Greenwell struggled to find a way past Gamecock guard Tiffany Mitchell, who held the Owensboro, Ky., native to just four points on 2-of-9 shooting and three rebounds.

With their most productive guard stifled, the Blue Devils looked to other players to carry the team. Freshman guard Kyra Lambert rose to the occasion, finishing the game with a team-high 16 points and only one turnover. But despite the Cibolo, Texas, native’s career day, Duke headed home wondering what could have been after a fourth-quarter stumble turned the Blue Devils’ upset bid into a gut-wrenching defeat.

The grit and persistence that Duke brought to the court in the first half vanished in the final period. The Gamecocks (8-0) outrebounded the Blue Devils 10-5 during the 10-minute stretch and shot 58.3 percent from the field. Duke led 50-49 with 6:23 to play but did not score for the next 4:55 as South Carolina made its run.

Postgame, McCallie said it was up to her players to decide if they are tough enough to respond to this loss.

“Some people like to be applauded for a nice try, and some people take it very much to heart,” McCallie said. “I take it pretty darn personally.”

The Blue Devils’ offensive challenges continued in the paint where sophomore forward and double-double machine Azurá Stevens was tasked with guarding Wilson.

The sophomores were no strangers to one other after playing together on the U.S. national team at the FIBA U19 World Championship this summer. Sunday’s matchups brought both players together again for the first time since their championship run—setting up a highly-anticipated battle of the bigs.

Stevens finished the first half a dismal 1-of-6 from the field and without a trip to the free-throw line, bothered by the size of the 6-foot-5 Wilson and 6-foot-4 Alaina Coates. Wilson kept the Raleigh native in check after halftime as well, limiting Stevens to nine points in the final two periods while going to work inside on the other end. Wilson’s 28 points came on 10–for-19 shooting, and she added 11 rebounds.

“It’s hard when you play against a person that you know because they just know you well,” Wilson said. “It was a lot of fun playing against her. We have such similar games, so you really just have to dig down and find that separation to pull away.”

Although the game proved to be a physical battle from tipoff, Duke did not find itself at the charity stripe until 6:22 remaining in the third period. The Blue Devils finished the game with just 13 free-throw attempts, compared to South Carolina’s 28.

“Just because a team is playing physical, doesn’t mean that a team has the right to play physical according to the rules,” McCallie said. “Aren’t those touches supposed to be fouls when people are beating on people with two hands?”

The Blue Devils were also assessed two technical fouls Sunday, with the first coming amid a challenging stretch just before halftime. Looking to find some momentum after committing a turnover the previous possession, freshman point guard Angela Salvadores—who shot just 2-of-11 from the field—took the ball to midcourt and looked to set up a play. But on-ball pressure from South Carolina led to a Gamecock steal and a shaken Salvadores falling to the floor, drawing a sideline pep talk from McCallie.

Seconds after the conversation ended, McCallie was whistled for a technical, sending South Carolina—already leading 28-22—to the free-throw line with less than a minute remaining in the second quarter.

Salvadores herself was hit with a technical late in the game, which resulted in South Carolina taking a 52-50 edge with 5:03 remaining on the clock. The Blue Devils would never lead again.

“We’re all going to take this game to heart,” Stevens said “That’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to learn from it, move on and use it to fuel us in further games.”

Duke now takes a break for final exams and returns to the court at home against Massachusetts Dec. 14 at 7 p.m.


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