After taking down a ranked opponent for the second time this season against Ohio State, the Blue Devils will look to upset South Carolina Sunday afternoon in their lone road game of December.
No. 14 Duke will travel to Columbia, S.C. to face the fifth-ranked Gamecocks at noon at Colonial Life Arena. South Carolina will challenge the Blue Devils in every aspect of the game, but especially in the frontcourt, touting 6-foot-5 senior forward A’ja Wilson. Wilson, who is projected to be the No. 1 pick in the 2018 WNBA Draft, is averaging a double-double for the season with 24.5 points and 11.1 rebounds per game.
Duke beat the Gamecocks at Cameron Indoor Stadium last December before South Carolina went on to win the national championship in April.
“Obviously, we need to keep a keen awareness to Wilson, where she is and how we can slow her down,” Blue Devil head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “We can’t stop her, but try to slow her down and try to make some of her shots more difficult."
Duke (6-1) will look to senior center Erin Mathias to try and hold her own down low, using her 6-foot-4 frame to stop Wilson from doing whatever she likes in the paint. Although playing against such a talented big may scare most players, Mathias says she is up for the task at hand.
“It’s just another challenge, and I’m going to try my best to step up to that,” Mathias said. “I just need to do what I can to help the team.”
Mathias posted her second career double-double against Ohio State and helped Duke outrebound the Buckeyes 49-30, proving that she can perform well under pressure.
“Erin’s become really good at moving her feet and being in good position defensively and just letting the game come to her offensively,” McCallie said. “Erin understands [the challenge] and has played against South Carolina before, but it's a total team effort.”
Mathias cannot do the job in the paint alone. Help near the rim must come from sophomore Leaonna Odom, who is currently having a breakout season. Odom has stepped up on both sides of the floor for the Blue Devils, and it showed last week against Oregon State when she scored 16 points and collected eight rebounds to help Duke win its first game against a ranked opponent of the season.
Another piece of the Blue Devil puzzle that needs to show up Sunday is the catalyst off the bench, redshirt sophomore Haley Gorecki. With the ability to spread the floor and drive to the basket, Gorecki earned enough of McCallie’s confidence to start the fourth quarter in a tightly contested game against Ohio State.
“Haley is just developing, she’s coming along beautifully because she’s going off the bounce and attacking the basket, which is fabulous,” McCallie said. “She can also shoot the three and her defense is improving, so we’re quite pleased.”
Not to be forgotten in the conversation of what needs to happen to beat a powerhouse like the Gamecocks (7-1) are two of the best guards in college basketball, graduate students Lexie Brown and Rebecca Greenwell. Against the Buckeyes, the elite backcourt took on the challenge of being leaders on and off the court to pull out an important win.
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“They’re competitors and they really get after it,” McCallie said. “Lexie gave us a great start against Ohio State and Becca did some huge things in the second half as well.”
Greenwell and Brown scored 19 points apiece against Ohio State and must continue to put pressure on opposing defenses going forward. Both have also proven that they are capable defenders, with Greenwell and Brown averaging 1.7 and 2.9 steals per game, respectively.
“They’re competitive, they play very hard and they’re very confident,” McCallie said. “They can do a lot of great things on the floor and bringing their teammates along is so important, so they’re working on that as well. If they do that, we can get everyone on their A-games.”
Their energy on both sides of the ball will be necessary to stop an impressive backcourt for the Gamecocks. But Duke’s captains may catch a break, as South Carolina’s second-leading scorer, redshirt senior guard Lindsey Spann, is unlikely to play in Sunday’s matchup, according to South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley.
No matter who steps on the court Sunday afternoon, it is sure to be a competitive matchup, with an opportunity for the Blue Devils to put the rest of the league on notice if they manage to stop such an elite talent in Wilson.
“It’ll be a very physical game, a very physical battle,” McCallie said. “It's a tough game, tough atmosphere, great opportunity for us to be in a hostile environment and really concentrate and focus so we can go out there and do what we do.”