RALEIGH—Duke’s game plan for road games and ranked opponents so far this season has relied on a combination of a stifling matchup zone defense, great backcourt play from their star guards and smart late-game execution to either see out a victory or calmly complete a comeback.
That blueprint was crucial to statement wins against then-No. 3 South Carolina and then-No. 8 Louisville, but a key element was sorely missing for the Blue Devils on Sunday at No. 23 N.C. State in an ugly 55-52 loss.
With 2:42 left in the game, redshirt junior Rebecca Greenwell hit a jump shot to give the No. 12 Blue Devils a 52-51 lead after facing a 14-point halftime deficit.
But with a key ACC road game on the line, Duke’s offensive execution vanished. The Blue Devils did not score again, with a flurry of four missed shots—including three near the rim—and a game-sealing Greenwell turnover costing Duke a chance at its first road win against a ranked team.
After freshman forward Leaonna Odom and senior Oderah Chidom were unable to finish inside on consecutive possessions—Odom also had a tip-in opportunity that rolled around and out with 56 seconds left—the Blue Devils were forced to use their defense to stay alive.
As it did throughout the game, Duke did just that, forcing a Wolfpack missed jumper to give itself yet another chance coming out of a late-game timeout to pull out the win.
With 25 seconds remaining, the Blue Devil guards reversed the ball from side to side along the perimeter, looking for an opening against a stout N.C. State man-to-man defense. But no such crevices opened, and junior Lexie Brown settled for a contested 3-pointer off the dribble with five seconds left.
Although Brown is an All-American who has played a major part in Duke’s early-season success and set an ACC record by making 56 straight free throws, she was just 2-of-8 from the field in the game up to that point and 1-of-4 from long distance.
The shot was not at all in rhythm and was well off the mark, ricocheting off the right side of the rim to all but seal the Blue Devils’ fate.
“I thought Lexie took a good shot.” Greenwell said. “She can hit that any day in practice. It just didn’t go in that time. I thought it was a good take.”
That play exemplified much of Duke’s offense in the closing minutes despite using several timeouts to get organized.
The Blue Devils used their strength inside to get back in the game, but could not consistently create clean looks in the paint in crunch time.
Despite the miscues, Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie also seemed content with the team’s shot selection, instead focusing on the outcomes and team’s second straight abysmal offensive start on the road coming off a 69-45 loss at then-No. 6 Florida State. McCallie’s team was held to 36 points combined in the first halves against the Wolfpack and Seminoles.
“I really thought we had some great time and score situations [late in the game],” McCallie said. “Becca made a great play coming off a screen, a nice jump shot. I thought [Odom’s] ball was in on the tip-in, that was in and out of the cylinder. I loved Oderah’s take there and I love the fact that her buddy, her post buddy, was backing her up.... I think everybody did things you need to do in time and score, but you can’t play 20 minutes of the game and frankly I think we ran out of time.”
Whether the Blue Devils find ways to convert their late-game opportunities or create better shots for Greenwell and Brown, Duke will likely need to make some offensive adjustments to stay near the top of the ACC standings.
The Blue Devils now sit one game in the loss column behind the teams atop the conference, with a manageable schedule awaiting other than a Jan. 26 test at No. 6 Notre Dame.
But the lack of offensive execution away from Cameron Indoor Stadium once again seems to be an alarming trend for a team that held N.C. State—which beat the Fighting Irish and Seminoles already this year—to 39.2 percent shooting and forced 16 turnovers yet could not capitalize.
Duke’s stifling defense will likely give it more chances to earn quality wins before the postseason, including home tilts against top-15 opponents in Virginia Tech and Miami.
However, true threats to make it far in the ACC and NCAA tournaments typically show their mettle by pulling out quality wins away from home during the regular season, and that is the next step Blue Devil fans are hoping to see from a team that has flashed exciting potential at home.
“We’re disappointed that we didn’t finish our work,” McCallie said. “This one will sting.”
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