GREENSBORO—Sophomore forward Azurá Stevens showed no rust in her return from injury to help Duke escape with a victory to keep its NCAA tournament hopes alive.
The eighth-seeded Blue Devils outlasted No. 9 seed Virginia 57-53 in the second round of the ACC tournament at the Greensboro Coliseum in a game that was within single digits for 40 minutes. Duke dominated the paint, led by junior Oderah Chidom and Stevens, to survive despite making just one of its final seven shots from the field. Chidom led the Blue Devils with a career-high tying 20 points and grabbed nine rebounds, and Stevens added 14 points and 15 boards—nine of which came on the offensive end—in her first game since tearing her plantar fascia Feb. 1.
“For Azurá to come back and post that double-double without ever practicing and missing seven games shows the kind of person she is, the character she has, the All-American she is,” Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “This was a game of heart, hustle and the intangibles. I’m really proud of this team.”
Duke (20-11) led by six midway through the fourth quarter, but 3-pointers by Virginia sophomores Aliyah Huland El and Mikayla Venson sandwiched around a layup by Blue Devil freshman guard Angela Salvadores quickly trimmed Duke’s lead to 49-47.
Duke missed two 3-point attempts on their next three possessions, and back-to-back triples by J’Kyra Brown staked the Cavaliers to a three-point lead in the closing minutes before a dramatic finish. Virginia made up for its limited size—the Blue Devils outrebounded the Cavaliers 49-32 and gathered 24 offensive rebounds—by staying in the game from the outside, shooting 8-of-19 from long range.
Virginia (16-15) led by one with a minute remaining when Lauren Moses missed two free throws that could have extended the lead. On the ensuing possession, Blue Devil freshman guard Kyra Lambert got fouled driving to the basket and calmly sank two free throws on the other end to grab the lead back for Duke.
The Blue Devils led by two as the clock wound down in regulation, needing just one stop to advance to Friday’s quarterfinals, and Venson missed an open 3-pointer in the corner that would have won the game for the Cavaliers. Huland El was whistled for a foul on the rebound with four seconds left, and Chidom sank both free throws to seal the victory.
“Oderah was on that side boxing out and she had great position. Kyra also had great position boxing out and people were careening for the ball over the back,” McCallie said. “It’s one thing to tell the team, ‘Boy, rebounding matters’. It’s another thing for them to box out and win the game on it basically.”
Duke redshirt sophomore guard Rebecca Greenwell missed the game after aggravating a back injury that has limited her in practice for several weeks, and the Blue Devils sorely missed her presence on the perimeter—only knocking down 1-of-15 3-pointers during the contest. But Duke adjusted by force-feeding the ball into the post and grabbing nearly every rebound on both sides of the floor for much of the second and third quarters, with Lambert supplementing her frontcourt teammates' efforts with a career-high seven rebounds.
“We found out Becca’s situation yesterday, right when we got to Greensboro actually, and it just goes to show that one person doesn’t define our team,” Chidom said. “We lost Becca and she’s a tremendous guard rebounder so the primary focus was having the guards pick up two, three rebounds to add onto their averages.”
After senior Faith Randolph gave Virginia a one-point lead with a jumper on the first possession of the second half, Stevens and Chidom dominated the interior against a very small Cavalier lineup.
The duo scored the Blue Devils’ first 10 points of the half, highlighted by a Chidom lay-in to on their sixth chance of the possession. Duke corralled nine offensive boards in the third quarter to extend countless possessions and help build an eight-point cushion as the Virginia suffered through a 5:36 scoring drought.
The Blue Devils could never build a double-digit lead, however, and went cold in the post, resulting in a five-minute scoring drought of its own spanning the third and fourth quarters while Virginia made its run.
The Cavaliers also started the game on fire from downtown, with Huland El knocking down two 3-pointers and Randolph adding a triple to stake the Cavaliers an early 17-8 lead.
“Early, we were lackadaisical on defense. [Huland El] nailed two 3-pointers early. They were gapping us,” McCallie said. “It was just sort of slow out of the gates. We were slow to be as intense as we needed to. The team responded well in terms of understanding that.”
Duke weathered the storm and scored the last five points of the opening frame, and after a back-and-forth start to the second quarter, Stevens made the Blue Devils' only triple of the half to spark a 15-2 run. The Cary, N.C., native had eight points and eight rebounds in the first half, controlling the paint for the rest of the period along with Chidom.
“I practiced a little earlier in this week, and I was kind of tentative,” Stevens said. “I just got into the flow of the game in the second quarter, and that’s where it just took off.”
After Duke entered the locker room with a 30-29 halftime advantage, they were able to make just enough plays late in the game to pull out the victory. The Blue Devils closed the game on a 7-0 run from the free throw line.
Duke will return to the floor Friday at 2 p.m. to play top-seeded and No. 2 Notre Dame.
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