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Duke women's basketball in need of road win vs. Georgia to advance to Sweet 16

Leaonna Odom will face a tall task against Georgia's frontcourt after she had a breakthrough performance in Duke's first-round victory.
Leaonna Odom will face a tall task against Georgia's frontcourt after she had a breakthrough performance in Duke's first-round victory.

Following one of Duke's most complete performances of the year, it can now look toward the Round of 32 with yet another top-25 opponent standing in the way of the Blue Devils' first Sweet 16 trip in three seasons. 

After No. 5 seed Duke–the ACC’s top defensive unit in the regular season–put together a dominant defensive performance Saturday morning against Belmont, forcing 17 turnovers in a 72-58 victory, the Blue Devils will battle fourth-seeded host Georgia at 7 p.m Monday at Stegeman Coliseum in Athens, Ga. The Bulldogs topped Mercer in a back-and-forth contest Saturday afternoon, but struggled to hold onto the basketball in the process, giving it away 17 times against the 13th-seeded Bears.

With defensive momentum in its favor and a chance to likely face perennial powerhouse Connecticut on the line, Duke knows it will need to put the pressure on yet again.

"To hold a team like Belmont to 58 points is rather extraordinary, great defense all around," Blue Devil head coach Joanne P. McCallie said after the win. "When I think of Lexie [Brown], how much she’s got a hand on the ball and all of the pressure that’s on the ball, to only have eight turnovers as a team is absolutely fantastic."

Monday’s matchup, however, presents a different kind of defensive challenge. The Bruin offense revolved significantly around success from beyond the arc Saturday—Belmont attempted 28 3-pointers, connecting on 11. As one of the best ACC teams defending beyond the arc, Duke slowed its opening-round opponents and used its own 3-point barrage to seize a 21-9 third-quarter advantage to propel itself into the second round. 

By contrast, the Georgia attempted just three triples against Mercer, and on the season, the Bulldogs shoot a mediocre 30.7 percent from beyond the arc—a figure that would rank near the bottom of the ACC. 

Instead, Georgia employs a very simple but effective strategy: pound the ball down low. It outrebounded the Bears 45-33 and was led by its two leading scorers—6-foot-3 junior Caliya Robinson and 6-foot-2 senior Mackenzie Engram combined for 44 of the team’s 68 points. 

"The polar extreme is going from playing the game outside in and now playing the game inside out. So we've had experience in both and we have to draw from those experiences and build our ability in both," McCallie said Sunday. "We've played teams like Georgia before. It's very, very physical, and position defense is very important. We're up for it, but it's completely opposite of what we played in our first game."

Fortunately for Duke, the team’s forwards have played at a high level all season, as they have had to pick up major slack with season-ending injuries to a trio of guards. Headlined by Leaonna Odom, who scored a career-high 25 points Saturday, the frontcourt starters of the sophomore along with senior Erin Mathias and freshman Jade Williams are more than capable of matching up with Robinson and Engram down low. 

Redshirt senior Bego Faz Davalos will provide frontcourt support off the bench, setting up a showdown in the paint Monday evening.

Often touted by her teammates as the team’s most athletic and dynamic player, head coach Joanne P. McCallie had nothing but high praise for Odom following an 11-for-18 performance from the field. 

"One thing she’s learning is that when she plays at that level [is] the elevation of the team," McCallie said. "It’s all about the team, and for her it is. She doesn’t like the spotlight. She’s not interested in the individual stuff, but I think she’s beginning to understand more so that it’s not about that, it’s about how it affects everybody."

After a disappointing home loss to Oregon in the second round of the NCAA tournament last year, the Blue Devils will be looking to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2015, when they lost to a top-seeded Maryland team. Current standout redshirt senior Lexie Brown was a sophomore for the Terrapins at the time. 

Conversely, Georgia is hosting two rounds of the tournament for the first time since 2013, and the Bulldogs hope they can take advantage of the opportunity to make their deepest tournament push in five years, especially after missing out entirely on the touranament last season. 

"It’s definitely special to be in the NCAA tournament and play on our home floor," Engram said after she drained two free throws to seal the win Saturday. "Walking up to the free throw line, I just enjoyed the moment. That’s kind of been our message this week. Enjoy where we are, enjoy what we’ve done."

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