EVANSTON, Ill.—Returning only 40 percent of its scoring from last season and featuring one of the youngest rosters in the NCAA, the Blue Devils’ youth was tested against a Northwestern team that returned five out of its six top scorers.
The leadership of Haley Gorecki and Leaonna Odom was not enough to provide the needed spark for the No. 21 Blue Devils, who fell to the Wildcats 84-58 in their home opener Sunday in Evanston, Ill., at Welsh-Ryan Arena. This marked the first loss for Duke in a road opener in more than ten games and its first loss in 13 games against unranked opponents.
Though Gorecki and Odom combined for 24 points, Northwestern dominated, shooting 26-of-64 from the field and 40 percent from three. The rebounding efforts by both teams were relatively balanced, but Duke gave the ball away 24 times as compared to the Wildcats’ 14 turnovers.
"Looking at them, we expected them to be very good. They were very good," head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. "We did not expect to not have more fortitude in stopping them... It’s like anything else—getting five people to play together. And we didn’t play together. That’s something we’re going to have to work out very quickly."
The first two possessions would dictate the great majority of the game for the Blue Devils (0-1), as the Wildcats stopped Duke twice, with the help of a Blue Devil turnover, and added five points to the score board. The early lead would not subside for Northwestern and Duke would not lead for the entire game.
The Wildcats (2-0) came out strong in the first quarter, shooting a dominating 67 percent from three and 63 percent from the field at the three-minute mark. Gorecki converted the sole 3-point shot for Duke in the first half in the first two minutes of the game and the Blue Devils did not convert another until three minutes into the third quarter. Duke finished with three makes from the 3-point line on only 16 attempts.
The Blue Devils also struggled early with corralling defensive rebounds. Duke gave the Wildcats nine offensive rebounds in the first half of the game. The Blue Devils only had two offensive rebounds in the first quarter but impressed with five in the second.
The second quarter for Duke opened with a scoring drought that spanned more than four minutes. Northwestern only converted two baskets during this time period, giving the Wildcats a 24-13 advantage until the Blue Devils responded.
"You have to credit their defense. We need to slow down to make plays. We were fouling and fouling trying to be aggressive but there were times where we really need to slow down and reset and re-boot," McCallie said. "We had a hard time running through sets and running through some of the things that we do. That cost us greatly."
Duke converted several free throws on the back of Onome Akinbode-James and Suggs, in addition to a fast-break basket by Odom to bring its point total up to 23. It was not enough to stop the Northwestern approach, however, and the Blue Devils entered the locker room with an eight point deficit at 33-25.
The third quarter began very similarly to the first for Duke, as Northwestern continued to impress with shooting percentage. The Wildcats scored two straight baskets, including one from beyond the arc, and converted an and-one opportunity in their first three possessions of the game. Northwestern finished the quarter with a 28-21 scoring advantage over the Blue Devils.
Odom and Gorecki carried the Duke offense in the third quarter, Gorecki hit an early three to help close a 15-point Northwestern lead. Odom put up six points in the next three minute. The Lompoc, Calif., native recorded her sixth double-double of her career and first of the season with 14 total points and a career-high 14 rebounds.
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"I think my teammates did a good job," Odom said. "They were able to box out and I was able to go in there for the loose balls from the guard position, so it made it a lot easier."
For the Wildcats, junior forward Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah pulled down almost half of the team’s 42 rebounds with 17 on the night. Kunaiyi-Akpanah ranked ninth in the nation last year with an average of 11.9 boards per game.
In the fourth quarter, the Blue Devils began to close the gap on Northwestern, using a 6-0 scoring run to bring the game to 64-54 with 5:54 left in the quarter.
Freshman Rayah Craig proved to be a vital part of this comeback for Duke, adding to her first-half point total of seven with six points in the fourth. She finished with 13 points on the night, the second highest point total for the Blue Devils. Duke was not able to get any closer to Northwestern than that 10-point threat.
"Honestly, I was just thinking of getting in the game and trying to win it—doing everything that I could. Coach P drew up a set up kind of, "Rayah play off of this" and I did that," Craig said. "My shots were flowing so I just kept going with it. It feels pretty good to play, except for the loss. We’re definitely going to come back from this."