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No. 17 Duke women's basketball returns from lengthy exam break for home tilt against Villanova

<p>Lexie Brown and the Blue Devils will look to shake off the rust Wednesday before another lengthy break and their toughest stretch of games this season.&nbsp;</p>

Lexie Brown and the Blue Devils will look to shake off the rust Wednesday before another lengthy break and their toughest stretch of games this season. 

After beginning the season with a 7-1 mark during a taxing eight-game, 17-day stretch, Duke has experienced what it is like to navigate through a busy schedule.

Now, the Blue Devils will look to play just as well following a 12-day break for final exams. 

No. 17 Duke will return to the court hoping to protect its six-game winning streak against Villanova Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Blue Devils followed up their biggest win in several years against then-No. 3 South Carolina on Dec. 4 with a sluggish performance against Elon and are now preparing for the toughest part of their schedule. 

After taking on the Wildcats, Duke will have eight more days off before starting a five-game stretch featuring home matchups with No. 18 Kentucky, No. 8 Louisville and a road game against No. 7 Florida State.

“[The break] was an awesome opportunity to focus on basketball, to focus on the team and how we want to play for each other and what we want to do,” Blue Devil head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “We’ll really get after it and improve, and then take a break and come back against Kentucky. It’s a great schedule and a great opportunity.”

Although Duke boasts the nation's 11th-ranked scoring offense led by redshirt junior Rebecca Greenwell, the Blue Devils (10-1) struggled against Elon following their 74-point effort against the Gamecocks. Greenwell went just 4-of-12 from the field against the Phoenix after pouring in 29 against South Carolina, and the sharpshooting guard was one of only two Duke players in double figures.

But the Blue Devils will likely be more focused on playing off their defense against a guard-oriented Villanova side that will struggle to match Duke's size inside.

In his 39th season leading the Wildcats (4-5), head coach Harry Perretta utilizes a "five-out" offense that boasts four shooters who have made at least 10 3-pointers this season. That quartet includes 6-foot-2 junior center Megan Quinn, who has shot 42.4 percent from long range and will test the Blue Devils' frontcourt defense.

Duke enters the contest ranked 46th in the nation defending beyond the arc, and will not be able to get its offense in gear if it cannot stay attached to Villianova's shooters.

“Their 3-point shooting ability as a team and as guards is really good, so our shot contesting is going to be really important, as is our ball pressure overall,” McCallie said. “They try to stretch the defense out and create space to operate with cuts and things of that nature….You don’t often see a five-out type of offense, so it’s a good challenge for us.”

Two of the Wildcats’ top scorers from beyond the arc, preseason first-team All-Big East guards Alex Louin and Adrianna Hahn, both average better than 12 points per game, but Villanova's reliance on perimeter shooting has not produced good results so far this year.

The Wildcats rank 331st nationally in rebounding and their weaknesses inside led to losses against Mississippi State and Temple by a combined 81 points, in addition to close losses against George Washington, Virginia Commonwealth and Troy.

Villanova must fight hard on the boards Wednesday and hope its crisp offense that commits the fewest turnovers in the country can keep Duke out of transition.

“They’re very well-coached, they’re a smart team, and they never play too fast. You have to speed them up to get them to turn the ball over, and that’ll be a challenge for us because they play a steady game,” McCallie said. “They’re willing to run that shot clock pretty low, so we’ll have to be patient.”

The Blue Devils' up-tempo offense has been the polar opposite of Villanova’s methodical style, with All-American and Maryland transfer guard Lexie Brown infusing energy into Duke's offense. Brown and Greenwell have combined for 37.7 points per game this season—the second-highest total for a backcourt duo in the country.

Sophomore guard Kyra Lambert has also made strides, leading the team with 48 assists on the year and averaging 8.9 points per game.

“I’m really excited. Our backcourt is jelling nicely and really coming together,” McCallie said. “I’m very confident in Lexi, Becca, and Kyra.”

That trio could be bolstered by the eventual return of sophomore guard Haley Gorecki, who has been sidelined to start the year after aggravating a right hip injury suffered last season during the summer.

Originally pegged for a December comeback, McCallie said Gorecki is not close to a return.

“We’re hoping, she’s getting into practice a little bit now, but she hasn’t gotten to contact yet,” McCallie said. “She’s obviously got to get to contact before she can get into a game. We’re hopeful. We miss her and want to get her back. I don’t anticipate her in December. I can’t say, I don’t want to say. I’m going to let her heal and take off Christmas break. All I can say is that she won’t play in December.”

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