WINSTON-SALEM, N.C.—In many ways, a basketball team without its star is like a ship without its captain—floating around in the sea, searching for someone to help put it back on course.
Sunday afternoon, the Blue Devils were rudderless yet again, struggling to find any sort of rhythm on either side of the ball. Without midseason Wooden Award candidate Azurá Stevens, Duke dropped its third straight game, falling 64-58 to Wake Forest.
As has been the case throughout the season, Sunday's loss was largely the result of a lack of experience and depth. Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie left redshirt freshman Lyneé Belton back in Durham with a hyperextended knee, and Stevens missed her fourth straight game with a torn plantar fascia.
Compound that with having to play four freshmen for extended minutes, and you have the perfect storm to continue what has been a miserable stretch for the Blue Devils.
“The outcome is a process-driven thing,” McCallie said. “I do think we’ve had some adjustments with people getting injured, but I still think basketball is basketball. You can play it well, but you have to play it together.”
Without its top scorer in Stevens, Duke has fallen into early holes in each of its last three games. After posting first-half totals of just 11 and 20 against then-No. 16 Miami and No. 10 Florida State, respectively, the Blue Devils managed only 22—shooting 8-for-28—in the opening 20 minutes against the Demon Deacons.
The absence of the ACC’s third-leading scorer may not be something her teammates want to blame for their offensive struggles, but it doesn’t help a team that has shot 39.4 percent without her.
“I think it’s everybody’s job [to make up for Stevens],” redshirt sophomore Rebecca Greenwell said. “Obviously we need to do our part, and we need to get everybody set in our offenses and execute better when we are. I think that’s one of our biggest issues right now—just executing.”
The issues were not only evident on offense, but the Duke defense—sans its 6-foot-6 centerpiece—had a tough time containing Wake Forest’s Amber Campbell. The sophomore guard exploded for 27 points, including three of the Demon Deacons' seven 3-pointers.
“I don’t think our team is defined by one person,” junior Oderah Chidom said. “A lot of us just need to step up and execute, play our roles and just play a little harder, and that all starts on the defensive end.”
After Thursday night’s home loss to the Seminoles, McCallie talked about her team needing to come together in a way that they have yet to show with Stevens sidelined. Against a sub-.500 ACC team, an opportunity to get back on track and break out of a slump presented itself to the Blue Devils Sunday afternoon.
Instead, they lost a much-needed get-right game and, for the time in 19 seasons, will come up short of double-digit conference wins.
“I just want to play the kind of basketball we played to start the game and to start the third [quarter,]“ McCallie said. “That’s Duke basketball. We’ve played it. It’s there, [but] it’s not there consistently.”
Recurring issues came back to haunt the Blue Devils in Winston-Salem. Once again, foul trouble limited an already-short Duke bench, as six out of nine healthy Blue Devils picked up at least three fouls. At times late in the game, McCallie had no choice but to keep Greenwell and freshman Angela Salvadores on the bench, simply to keep them from picking up a fifth foul.
Defensive miscommunications were also a problem early on—Wake Forest shot nearly 50 percent from the field in the first half and nailed five first-half 3-pointers as the Demon Deacons built up an 11-point halftime lead.
“Any team can hit any number of threes [on] any given night,” Chidom said. “We just weren’t able to make that adjustment in a mid-game situation. We knew that [Campbell] was hot and we just weren’t able to stop her. We need to do a better job making in-game adjustments and shutting the other team’s strengths down.”
Leadership, communication and success. Those are three things that go hand-in-hand for any organization, but especially a basketball team.
And even though the Blue Devils’ past history says that the presence of Stevens may be the key to getting them back where they want to be, her return to the court remains uncertain. Until then, Duke will likely have to continuing to battle through what has been a frustrating stretch.
“We’re looking for a 40-minute game of Duke basketball with whoever is available,” McCallie said. “We can’t worry about what we can’t control, but we’re looking for a 40-minute game and the most we’ve come up with is about 25 minutes. That’s not good enough—not against anybody.”
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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."