Saturday afternoon will feature David vs. Goliath in the form of Duke vs. Geno Auriemma and his undefeated Connecticut squad in the NCAA tournament.
After advancing to the Sweet 16 with a rout of a higher-seeded Georgia team on the road, the fifth-seeded Blue Devils will take on the No. 1 Huskies in Albany, N.Y., Saturday at approximately 2 p.m. at the Times Union Center. Although Connecticut hasn’t lost a game since its fall to Mississippi State a year ago—its only defeat since 2014—no NCAA tournament is without its major upsets, and head coach Joanne P. McCallie hopes that her team has one in store going against the most dominant team in women’s college basketball.
“[Connecticut is] the best team, and they’ve been around a long time...but the reality is is that you get a chance to play against some really good players,” McCallie said. “We’ll really see what we can do and challenge ourselves and just get after it...we’re confident, but we still have to understand what it takes”
Because of the Huskies’ stifling man-to-man defense, which has held opponents to just 51.7 points per game, the third-best in the country, the Blue Devils need to take care of the ball to capitalize on every offensive opportunity after getting away with 21 turnovers Monday against the Bulldogs.
Although Duke’s giveaways did not stop the Blue Devils (24-8) from dominating the game, that level of ball insecurity just won’t cut it against the Huskies. Graduate student Lexie Brown, Duke’s main ball-handler, will have to improve her assist-to-turnover ratio, as she walked away from the Georgia game with five giveaways herself with six assists.
“We have to get better and reduce our turnovers. That’s clear,” McCallie said. “We have to reduce our turnovers. We’ve just got to slow down and execute.”
Along with taking care of the ball, Duke’s offense needs to continue its trend of getting multiple players involved. Four Blue Devils scored in double digits against the Bulldogs, which created a multi-dimensional offensive attack that Georgia was ill-equipped to handle. Connecticut (34-0) has as much or far more talent at every position, and it will be nearly impossible for the Blue Devils to win the game with only Brown or graduate student Rebecca Greenwell as the sole scorers.
McCallie made it clear that her team needed to forget about the Husky hype and “play the individuals.” Connecticut scores a lot of fast-break points to break games open quickly, and McCallie understands how important containing the Huskies’ tempo will be for Duke.
“Transition defense is a real concern for us, getting back and stopping the ball,” McCallie said. “We can improve in areas of ball pressure. Cutting off the baseline was a real problem for us against Georgia.”
Duke will need all of its players to be locked in on defense to stop the Huskies, who average the most points in the nation with 89.8. Connecticut has five players with double-digit scoring averages, including 6-foot-6 forward Azurá Stevens, who was the Blue Devils’ best player and a first-team All-ACC honoree two years ago before transferring to the Huskies.
“Azura is a an excellent player and she’s done a super job for them, and she’s just part of their equation,” McCallie said. “We’ve got to look at the whole equation.”
From front to back, the Blue Devils’ defenders will have to stay disciplined and aggressive to even have a chance of winning. McCallie sees the game as more of an opportunity than as a obstacle, hoping to accomplish what some would call an impossible task in taking down Connecticut for the first time of her career at Duke.
“You’ve just got to grow after each game. That’s just what you do in the tournament,” McCallie said. “Grab what you can from the games before and apply it to the next.”
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