Guards Haley Gorecki and Faith Suggs have played a combined 129 games donning the blue and white, but none of those contests have come in their home state of Illinois.
That will change Sunday afternoon, when No. 21 Duke takes on Northwestern at Welsh-Ryan Arena—the first-ever matchup between the two programs. The trip to Evanston, Ill., will give Gorecki and Suggs—two of the four captains on this year’s Duke squad—a chance to play at home in front of friends and family for the first time.
“It is a great thing to honor where people are from and how they have traveled to be at Duke,” head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “At Duke we draw people from all over the world and so the chance they get to come back and play is just a great thing. It is something we have always done as a program and I am just excited for them—excited that they can share what we do with their families and also their high schools and everybody else.”
But the homecoming of Gorecki and Suggs also means the Blue Devils will be opening their regular season on the road for the sixth consecutive year. Despite the challenges that come with playing on an opponent’s court, McCallie believes these road trips allow her players to grow closer as a team.
“It is great to develop chemistry, to be together [and] to learn how to be together,” McCallie said. “So we are just excited about it. You've got to play anytime, anyplace, anywhere.”
While Sunday’s matchup will be Duke’s first opportunity to compete in a game that counts this year, the Wildcats are coming off a season-opening victory against Green Bay. Northwestern forced the Phoenix into 21 turnovers in its 57-55 win, converting those giveaways into 14 points of its own.
Meanwhile, taking care of the ball was something the Blue Devils struggled with in their lone exhibition win over Alaska Anchorage. Duke turned the ball over 20 times against the Seawolves and must be more careful if it hopes to escape Evanston unscathed.
“Crisp passing [and] really looking to dribble less,” McCallie said of what her squad needs to do to cut down on turnovers. “Fundamentally dribble less, pass more and just be strong with the ball.”
Another aspect that could pose an issue for the Blue Devils is rebounding. The Wildcats boast one of the country’s top rebounders in junior forward Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah, who ranked ninth in the nation last year with an average of 11.9 boards per game.
Northwestern was dominated on the glass against Green Bay, managing just 27 boards to the Phoenix’s 41. But Kunaiyi-Akpanah still posted a double-double with 17 points and 14 boards—both team bests—and has the ability to give her team crucial second-chance opportunities Sunday if the Blue Devils are not able to contain her.
“I do not think [Kunaiyi-Akpanah] can be stopped because she is so agile,” McCallie said. “But certainly [we can try] limiting her...the key will be contact on her, it will be early contact on her and at times doubling her as we box her out.”
Furthermore, sophomore guard Lindsey Pulliam has proven she has what it takes to be the Wildcats’ go-to scorer. Although the Silver Spring, Md., native struggled in Northwestern’s opener, scoring just nine points on 2-of-12 shooting, Pulliam led the team with 15.0 points per game during her freshman campaign and is someone Duke has to keep an eye on come Sunday.
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“[Pulliam] attacks off the bounce so well [and] she is one of the few players that still has a mid-range game,” McCallie said. “We have got to keep her uncomfortable and we have got to locate her...contest her shot every shot she takes.”
After Northwestern, the Blue Devils will travel to Maine in a matchup with the Black Bears next Thursday. But for now, the team will try and enjoy its time in the Windy City.
“Definitely we are going to try Lou Malnati’s or Giordano’s,” Suggs said. “Definitely some deep-dish pizza.”