Duke has struggled to find and retain a consistent offensive identity this season. The devastating loss of redshirt sophomore Haley Gorecki for the season has only compounded matters.
The new Blue Devil starting five, however, will have a host of opportunities to solidify their play against three talented opponents to wrap up the regular season.
That daunting final stretch begins with a trip to the Carrier Dome, when No. 17 Duke battles Syracuse for the first time this season during a 7 p.m. matchup Thursday. After managing just 59 and 60 points its its last two contests, having the team’s final road tilt of the season in an atmosphere as formidable as the Carrier Dome will go a long way toward preparing the team for any hostilities in the postseason.
“It’s so important to keep getting better on the road,” head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “We’ve had to learn to work our way and be as successful as we want to be on the road, and that’s certainly a work in progress. But what a great game to get after, to play and do well and sort of get that road experience. They usually have a great crowd when we go there. It’s like an NCAA tournament game. It’s a great opportunity for us.”
Duke (20-6, 9-4 in the ACC) has struggled away from Cameron Indoor Stadium—five of the team’s six losses have come on the road. This is just the second time all season that the Blue Devils will play away from home without Gorecki, the first being last Sunday’s dominant 60-35 win against Clemson. Sporting both a tall and athletic lineup, Duke will need to take care of the dirty work in the trenches in order to come out victorious against an Orange team that like to press hard and press early.
Despite the recent offensive woes, the key to success for Duke moving forward does not have to be scoring 80 points each game. The Blue Devils have a solid foundation to build from with their defense—tied for first in the league in points against—which enables them to either work quickly in transition or control the game’s tempo to create space.
“I don’t think we can worry about the artistic nature of our offense,” McCallie said. “When you lose Kyra, Mikayla and now Haley, you have to come to a resolve that it’s going to be a bit blue-collar and workhorse-like.... Style points don’t count, and we need to understand that. We need to get the job done.”
Duke outrebounded the Tigers 45-28 Sunday after dominating the first half with 15 offensive boards. Against a Syracuse team that likes to run its offense through an aggressive point guard, defending the paint and collecting rebounds will be a point of emphasis. Although the Orange have been fortunate to keep the same starting five all season, four of those players are underclassmen, in direct contrast to a Duke team that features three graduate students in the lineup.
Syracuse (18-7, 6-6) is led by sophomore transfer Tiana Mangakahia, a dynamic point guard who averages 18.0 points and 10.1 assists per contest. Mangakahia demonstrated her ability to wreak havoc in the lane against Georgia Tech Jan. 4, when she scored a career-high 44 points, including 20 made free throws.
“Her assist total is a mind-boggle,” McCallie said. “She’s in on every single play. She penetrates and kicks probably better than any guard in the conference. Besides rebounding the long rebounds, besides breaking the press and controlling the tempo, we need to harass this player and make her uncomfortable to take away her paint takes.”
In addition to a potent offense, the Orange boast an effective and aggressive press—Syracuse’s turnover margin is second-best in the conference. The Blue Devils have struggled throughout the season—most notably on the road—with protecting and controlling the ball. Duke will need to break the press early and dictate the tempo of the game to its liking in order to avoid the mental pressure that comes with playing in a hostile environment against a tenacious defense.
“[We need] precision and execution, tremendous faith in each other and discipline,” McCallie said. “What I mean by that is, we certainly don’t want to dribble through the presses, we want to pass through them, be in attack mode.... It’s a broken-play game. It’s a game that’s made by playing off each other—it’s probably the maximum test of that.”
Following the contest against Syracuse, the Blue Devils return home for their final games of the season, the first being a top-20 matchup against No. 12 Florida State Monday. Duke closes out the season against North Carolina, looking to avenge a 92-86 overtime defeat in Chapel Hill earlier this season.
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