The old basketball adage goes, “defense wins championships.”
And although Connecticut scored 140 points up north in its offensive-minded win, the Blue Devils turned up the pressure in the second half to move within a victory of a potential matchup with the nation’s No. 1 team.
In the first round of the NCAA tournament, No. 5 seed Duke defeated 12th-seeded Belmont 72-58 Saturday at the Stegeman Coliseum in Athens, Ga. Sophomore Leaonna Odom notched a career-high 25 points and grabbed six rebounds, and graduate student Lexie Brown added 13 points, five assists and five rebounds in the Blue Devils’ 24th straight first-round win.
“[Odom] just makes everyone around her better…. We did not feel that anybody could guard [Odom]. We ran at her at point more in the second, made a couple of adjustments at halftime to give her a chance to give poor Lexie a breather from handling the offense so much,” Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “[Odom] is a tough matchup for anybody. Hopefully she can enjoy playing at her highest level and she’ll see the team really rise as well.”
Although Odom scored a new career high, Brown was not surprised. After the game, the graduate student said that she has played at this level during practice.
Brown’s classmate Rebecca Greenwell became the second player in ACC history to hit 70 3-pointers in all four years of her career. She finished with 18 points on 4-of-7 shooting from beyond the arc.
The Blue Devils (23-8) pulled away in the second half by locking down on defense on the perimeter. After Duke allowed an early 3-pointer after the break—Belmont’s ninth of the game—the Bruins (31-4) made just two of their last 11 3-point attempts.
“We just talked at halftime and said we need to shut that down. We looked at the score and they only had seven points that were not a three,” Brown said. “We knew that coming into the game that they depend a lot on the three ball. We weren’t taking it super serious in the first half but in the second half we locked down and tried to run them off the line. “
The Blue Devils started the game strong. After facing an early one-point deficit, Duke went on a 9-0 run to create some separation. However, as Belmont has done all season long, it used its best shot—the 3-pointer—to get within striking distance with three long balls in four possessions. The Blue Devils missed their final five field goals and 10 of their last 11 shots of the first quarter to take a slim 16-14 lead into the second period.
Duke still clung to its early advantage as a result of its nine offensive rebounds in the opening frame, which gave the team 11 more shots than the Bruins. The almost three-inch average height advantage that the Blue Devils owned led to a 15-5 advantage in second-chance points by the end of the day.
Junior Faith Suggs entered the lineup for the first time since Jan. 4, when the Blue Devils lost to Louisville. The Flossmoor, Ill., native notched six points, but made her biggest difference on the boards. She grabbed five of her eight rebounds in the first half, and the junior played a season-high 29 minutes.
“I think we did a really good job on communicating because we switched sides, and the fans were no longer on our side,” Suggs said. “We worked really well, really good switches and the Lexie ball pressure was probably the best part. Having someone guard the ball like that at all times.”
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Belmont guard Darby Maggard knocked down her third triple of the game to notch the game at 22 apiece, and three more 3-pointers from Kylee Smith, Ellie Harmeyer and Maggard gave the Bruins a 31-28 lead.
Odom drained a pair from the free-throw line to put Duke ahead by one before the halftime break, and the Blue Devils never trailed in the second half, outscoring Belmont 21-9 in the third quarter.
“We needed to toughen up. Like we said before, they were depending a lot on the three. We really weren’t worried about that,” Brown said. “We knew our defense was going to wear them down a little bit and our whole focus today was defense and rebounding. When both teams get tired, shots get slow, but you can still play really hard defense and that’s what we did.”
In the second half, Greenwell hit her third triple to extend Duke's lead to seven at 41-34. After two free throws from Mathias, the Blue Devils earned their first double-digit lead, and they didn’t stop there. Five more points in a row for Odom put them on top by 15.
That lead dwindled to 10 before Greenwell drained a 3-pointer in front of her bench. Smith scored eight of the Bruins' nine points in the third quarter and finished with 20, but it was not enough to keep pace with Duke's onslaught.
“In the first half, we had some communication lapses that were actually comical at times because we left shooters open for some threes that we shouldn’t have,” McCallie said. “I give the team a great deal of credit because, again, second half, they’re at the other end, which takes them away from the bench and they have to rely on each other and communicate. It was just great playing off each other. That’s really important this time of year on both sides of the ball that we’re able to do that.”
The Blue Devils kept up their defense in the final period and did not let Belmont back into the game. Duke finished with 21 points off 17 Belmont turnovers and the Bruins’ 58 points were their second-lowest total of the season.
The Blue Devils will now face No. 4 seed Georgia Monday in the second round in Athens. The Bulldogs defeated 13th-seeded Mercer Saturday afternoon 68-63 to clinch their matchup with Duke.
And if Odom plays the way she did against Belmont, the Blue Devils could very likely soon be on their way to Albany, N.Y., for a potential date with the ever-dominant Huskies next weekend.
“I think wanting to advance and give our seniors another game,” Odom said. “That makes me want to take the pressure off of them, so I have to do what I need to do in order for us to advance.”