After a stop home for their 19th straight victorious home opener, the Blue Devils hit the road once again. Duke has seen its ups and downs, but will see if it can make the critical improvements necessary to have a special season against its toughest opponent yet.
No. 11 Duke will travel north to Villanova, Pa., looking to continue its perfect record against Villanova at Jake Nevin Fieldhouse. The 1 p.m. game will be the third time that these two teams have met, with the Blue Devils holding the series’ only two wins, including a 68-50 victory at Cameron Indoor Stadium last year. The Wildcats return four starters from their WNIT semifinal appearance a year ago.
In Duke’s first two games, the play of its starting five has put the ACC on notice. But until halftime of the Blue Devils' 77-50 win Thursday night against High Point, the bench contributions left a lot to be desired. In the second half, the tides turned and the bench contributed 12 points to help pull away, with graduate student Bego Faz Davalos and freshman Jade Williams leading the charge. That second half showed some of the potential Duke's reserves have moving forward.
“We can grow so much, it’s just ridiculous,” Blue Devil head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “It’s a long journey to get what we want to get out of this team, but I definitely see progress there.”
This season, Duke (2-0) returns the ACC’s highest-scoring backcourt in graduate students Lexie Brown and Rebecca Greenwell. In their final season, they have combined for 33.0 points per game so far to go along with averaging 13.0 rebounds.
The preseason John R. Wooden Award watch list selections have been accompanied by sophomore Leaonna Odom, senior Erin Mathias and freshman Mikayla Boykin in the lineup. In total, the starters have combined for 87.4 percent of the team’s scoring and 76.1 percent of its rebounds thus far.
Although the Blue Devils struggled in the first half Thursday, it was not the first time the veteran team was challenged. In its season opener against Grand Canyon in Phoenix, the Antelopes' slower pace of play limited Duke's fast breaks and explosive offense. High Point head coach DeUnna Hendrix also mentioned postgame Thursday that she drastically changed her game plan to slow down the pace. Duke will look to improve Sunday afternoon against a team that McCallie compared to Grand Canyon.
“Villanova’s very, very much a quarter-court team. They like to hang onto the ball. They like to execute. They like to spread the floor, backdoor cuts. Four out, one in type of thing,” McCallie said. “It’s important to take a next step of being very aggressive on the road going after that kind of team and then dictating our game the way we play.”
The Wildcats (2-0) have been led by junior guard Adrianna Hahn and sophomore guard Kelly Jekot in their two wins to date. Hahn has spearheaded the offense with 15.5 points and 7.0 rebounds per game, and Jekot has brought down 6.5 rebounds per contest to accompany her 9.5 points per game. In last season’s meeting, Hahn scored 18 points to match both Brown and Greenwell.
One area where the Blue Devils have excelled is in the rebounding department. The ACC’s tallest team outrebounded High Point 46-26, and Mathias leads the way with 8.5 boards per game. Odom and Greenwell have each brought down an average of 8.0.
Villanova will start four players that stand at least six feet tall, with its center, senior Megan Quinn, topping out at 6-foot-2. On the other hand, the Blue Devils will start Mathias, who is a full two inches taller than Quinn, and Odom, who also holds a two-inch height advantage at 6-foot-2 over the next-tallest Wildcat starter.
Although the height advantage is a clear strength, Duke's frontcourt strength has also made it struggle with turnovers at times. In the Blue Devils’ first two games, the team has averaged 17.5 giveaways, a number that will need to decrease as the competition heats up quickly.
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“That’s too many turnovers for us,” McCallie said. “It will be a great test for us to be on the road again and also be playing a very good team that tries to control the ball a lot.”
With increased bench production from Davalos and Williams coupled with continued strong play from the starting core, the Blue Devils are prepared to play on the road for the second time in three outings. After Sunday’s game, Duke will continue its road stretch against Old Dominion Wednesday night in Norfolk, Va., before returning home to face No. 18 Oregon State Nov. 25 at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
“This is coming at a good time,” McCallie said. “These road games are important to us and they definitely develop us in terms of being away from our fans and dealing with issues together out there.”