Last year, Duke limped into Rupp Arena with two losses already and dropped a third contest to a ranked opponent in front of 17,150 Kentucky fans.
Although the Wildcats started this season ranked and the Blue Devils did not, this time Kentucky is the team trending in the wrong direction heading into the teams' annual nonconference game.
No. 15 Duke will return to the court following seven days off for its holiday break to host the No. 17 Wildcats Thursday at 7 p.m. at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The contest marks the sixth straight year dating back to 2011 the teams have met in nonconference play, and although the Blue Devils are 3-2 in the series during that span, Kentucky won last year's matchup 71-61.
But despite returning one of the nation's top guard-forward duos in Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator, the Wildcats have already dropped three games—including losses to unranked foes Colorado and Arizona State.
After falling 77-73 at Vanderbilt in November, Duke has avoided the lapses that have hurt Kentucky, reeling off seven straight wins highlighted by a Dec. 4 upset against then-No. 3 South Carolina. Veteran guards Rebecca Greenwell and Lexie Brown have led the way by combining for 37.6 points per game for a team eyeing a second home win against a ranked SEC foe.
“As long as we focus on the technical aspect of what we need to do, this team this year is more mature and focuses on what we want to accomplish in a game,” Blue Devil head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “This team is well-connected, they listen to each other and they pay attention to the things we want to do.”
Last year, Duke struggled to contain Akhator and company in the paint, allowing 38 points in the interior and 18 to the second-team All-SEC forward. Akhator will test senior forward Oderah Chidom and the Blue Devil forwards, who struggled at Vanderbilt before holding their own against perhaps the nation's best frontcourt in South Carolina.
One of the main decisions facing McCallie will be whether to play two traditional post players like Chidom and classmate Kendall Cooper or to start the quicker Leaonna Odom, who started for the first time in Duke's last game against Villanova. The freshman's versatility has given the Blue Devils (11-1) another gear at times on offense, but Duke will have to hold its own in the paint before transitioning to its 15th-ranked scoring offense.
After being dismissed for the season before last year's game against Kentucky, Cooper adds experience and toughness to a team that has not allowed more than 65 points since its Nov. 20 loss to the Commodores.
“Last year, most of the game [against Kentucky] we had three or four freshmen on the floor,” McCallie said. “Kendall wasn’t at that game. We’re quite a different team, relative to experience.”
A Maryland transfer with Final Four experience, Brown's calming presence in the backcourt has made the game even easier for Greenwell, as has the emergence of sophomore point guard Kyra Lambert. With two other capable ball handlers and playmakers beside her, Greenwell is averaging 20.5 points per game and shooting 44.4 percent from 3-point range.
The Owensboro, Ky., native scored just a single point in her return to her home state a year ago, and will look to back up her 29-point effort against South Carolina with another strong performance in a key nonconference game.
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The backcourt battle between Brown and Greenwell and Epps, who is one of the nation's best slashers and posts 17.9 points per contest, should give fans at Cameron Indoor Stadium plenty to watch.
But if the Blue Devils pay too much attention to Epps, Kentucky (9-3) still has the backcourt firepower to make Duke pay.
Guards Maci Morris and Makenzie Cann both shoot better than 35 percent from long distance and give the Wildcats similar versatility to play four perimeter players around Akhator.
“We need good location on all their shooters because they can all shoot it and they like to play four guards a lot too,” McCallie said. “We need to locate the shooters a little better, and be more in their face and more on them, with a focus on [Morris] because she is pretty dominant with the three-ball.”
After getting outscored 38-34 in the paint a season ago, Chidom and company will look to show more toughness Thursday, when former four-time All-American center Elizabeth Williams' jersey will be added to the rafters at Cameron Indoor Stadium during a halftime ceremony.
The Blue Devils also hope to build momentum to carry into their ACC opener—a home tilt against No. 8 Louisville Monday.
“We feel like we can get the ball inside and cause their post to play defense and attack more that way,” McCallie said. “We always want to split the paint. If you win the paint, you also win the game.”