After rolling through the opening weekend, Duke faces a much more daunting opponent this weekend in possibly the most storied program in women’s college basketball: Connecticut. The Huskies set a number of NCAA Tournament records in their first-round win against St. Francis, including the most points scored in a NCAA Tournament game with 140, most points in a half with 94, most rebounds with 69 and most assists with 38.
Connecticut was slightly less dominant dispatching Quinnipiac in the second round, but still will arrive in Albany for its 25th straight Sweet Sixteen having won its first two games by a combined 109 points. Can the Blue Devils keep up with the top team in the nation? We answer the five biggest questions heading into Saturday’s game.
1. Will the pace of the game help or hurt Duke?
In the wake of No. 16 seed UMBC’s historic victory against No. 1 seed Virginia in the men’s tournament, there has been much talk of how the slower pace of a game could lead to more upsets. Duke has played much of this season without a true point guard after losing Mikayla Boykin and Haley Gorecki to injuries with Kyra Lambert already out, and as a result has gotten out in transition less than expected. In two NCAA tournament games, the Blue Devils have a combined four fast-break points. The Huskies, on the other hand, have already demonstrated their ability to dominate in a run-and-gun game—their big win against St. Francis was partly the result of a frenetic pace of play.
If the Blue Devils can slow Connecticut down and limit its total possessions, they will have the best shot to get past the 11-time national champions. To do this means keeping the Huskies off the boards as much as possible to prevent quick outlets—a tall task even for a team as tall as Duke. Connecticut owns the fourth-best rebounding margin in the nation, thanks in part to former Blue Devil and AAC Sixth Man of the Year Azura Stevens.
2. Can the Blue Devils overcome UConn’s strength in the paint?
Stevens is just one piece of Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma’s dominant frontcourt. What the Huskies lack in size—Stevens is their tallest regular player at 6-foot-6—they make up for in sheer talent in the post. Napheesa Collier and Gabby Williams, who stand 6-foot-1 and 5-foot-11, respectively, each average 7.4 rebounds per game—the same amount as Stevens. Katie Lou Samuelson rounds out the trio of starting forwards with Collier and Williams, contributing 4.6 boards per game.
Collier, Williams and Samuelson were all named first-team All-AAC, and Samuelson was a Naismith Trophy semifinalist after averaging 17.6 points per contest. Collier, Williams and Stevens also combined to average more than 41 points themselves.
Part of the reason Connecticut is so effective in the paint is versatility, as Williams is the only true forward on the roster. The other three players can rotate between the post and the wings, making matchups a headache for opponents and mixing up the looks that the Huskies can give down low. Erin Mathias, Leaonna Odom and Jade Williams have all been solid contributors for the Blue Devils this season, but have yet to face a group as talented as Connecticut's frontcourt.
3. How will the Huskies attack the Blue Devils on offense?
Duke’s greatest strength all year, even in the face of injuries, has been its impressive defense. The Blue Devils rank 18th in the nation in scoring defense and have done an impressive job through two NCAA tournament games in shutting down their opponents. Duke was particularly effective against Georgia, holding the Bulldogs to an ice-cold 23.5 percent clip from the field.
Although this low mark can’t be entirely attributed to the Blue Devils, it is a testament to their focus on defense entering the postseason. How it holds up against Connecticut, the top scoring offense in the nation, remains to be seen.
The Huskies have a number of scoring options, particularly their versatile forwards. Although those frontcourt players have provided the bulk of the scoring this year, guards Crystal Dangerfield and Kia Nurse provide additional threats out of the backcourt and will be tough assignments for Duke’s Lexie Brown and Rebecca Greenwell. Brown has had a stellar year defensively with 115 steals, but she and the rest of the Blue Devils will face a unique challenge on the wings if they are tasked with covering Gabby Williams, Collier and Samuelson on rotations to the wings as well.
4. Which team's lack of depth will have more of an impact?
On its face, it would appear one of the Huskies’ greatest strengths is their depth. Stevens would be a starter on any other team in the country, but in her first year in New England found herself coming off the bench. But outside of Stevens, Auriemma has had a hard time establishing his bench as a threat for much of this season.
Against Tulane in the AAC tournament, the Green Wave outscored Connecticut in the second half after most of the Huskies’ starters had left the game. Granted, this was after Connecticut built a 52-22 lead, but it still demonstrates one hole in the armor for the nation’s No. 1 team. If the Huskies’ starters get in foul trouble, the Blue Devils will have an opportunity to exploit one of the weaker spots of the AAC champions.
On the other hand, the Blue Devils have also struggled with depth all season, largely as a result of injuries. Jade Williams has emerged as a reliable option in the post, and Bego Faz Davalos has also proven she can be another threat, but for the most part Duke has relied on its starting five to provide the bulk of the scoring. Keeping the starters on the court as much as possible will be key for the Blue Devils, whose bench does not have the firepower to keep pace.
5. Can the Blue Devils shoot over the Huskies enough to win the game from the perimeter?
With an imposing frontcourt looming in the post, Duke’s best chance at offense will be its perimeter shooting. Brown and Greenwell are two of the most dangerous threats in the ACC from beyond the arc. The Huskies have held opponents to just 26.9 percent shooting from 3-point range, but if the Blue Devils are going to have any shot at knocking off the No. 1 overall seed, they will need to make shots consistently from deep and establish the 3-pointer early as a threat.
In nearly all of its 34 wins this season, Connecticut has gone on at least one devastating run to put the game out of reach. Duke’s best shot at preventing that knockout blow, besides rebounding and slowing the pace, is hitting long-distance shots.
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