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Mikayla Boykin's return unlikely when Duke women's basketball takes on UNLV

<p>Mikayla Boykin sparked the Blue Devils in her return Thursday.</p>

Mikayla Boykin sparked the Blue Devils in her return Thursday.

For nearly a year, the Blue Devils have been without a true point guard. With redshirt freshman Mikayla Boykin’s clearance to play against Marist Sunday, many anticipated a triumphant return. That never happened.

Don’t hold your breath for one Thursday either, as Duke seeks its third straight victory at 7 p.m. at Cameron Indoor Stadium against an undermanned UNLV squad. The Blue Devils should take home the win, but Duke’s point guard situation remains up in the air. Junior Leaonna Odom has been manning the spot this year while true point guards Mikayla Boykin and Kyra Lambert recover from their respective injuries. After Lambert reinjured her left knee in late October, ending her season, Boykin seemed the natural successor.

But despite her clearance to play, she never saw the floor in the Blue Devils’ grind-it-out 64-56 win against Marist. She also likely won’t get any minutes Thursday. The Duke coaching staff will try to ease Boykin back into her game after having not played since tearing her ACL Dec. 10, 2017.

“We have to have the right situation,” head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “I want her to go into a positive experience. She’s cleared—we’re thrilled, absolutely thrilled—and we’ll see.”

While the Blue Devils’ backcourt rotation lacks clarity, two forwards have made themselves staples in Duke’s lineup. Onome Akinbode-James, the freshman originally from Nigeria, has a wealth of raw talent, though she lacks consistency and is still developing her basketball IQ. For instance, Akinbode-James recorded 14 points and 14 rebounds at Wisconsin, but followed that up with a three-point, four-rebound performance against Marist—a game where she committed four fouls.

Sophomore Jade Williams offers more experience to the Blue Devils (5-3). In Sunday’s game against Marist, Akinbode-James’ aforementioned foul trouble confined her to the bench, but Williams came alive with eight rebounds and 11 points on 5-of-9 shooting. Her polished post play came in handy when Marist held Duke’s volume scorers in check for long stretches.

“Jade is really coming on strong,” McCallie said. “I have a lot of confidence in Jade. However, there are two sides to the ball. She needs to play both sides of the ball, and she could just blossom.”

Points in the paint should be easy pickings for Williams and Akinbode-James Thursday, as injuries to UNLV’s top interior players have left the Lady Rebels (1-5) shorthanded down low. Senior forward Paris Strawther will be out through December with a hand injury. More devastating is the loss of their top scorer, senior center Katie Powell, who hurt her ankle in the second quarter of UNLV’s 86-72 loss to USC Saturday. She did not return to the game. Before the injury, Powell scored 16 points per game.

With Powell out, senior forward Jordyn Bell and redshirt senior guard Nikki Wheatley—averaging 10.0 and 8.7 points per game, respectively—will spearhead the Lady Rebel offense. The Blue Devils’ perimeter defense will have to be on high alert due to some of UNLV’s prolific long-range shooters. The Lady Rebels sunk a season-high eight of their 15 attempts beyond the arc against USC. Duke has been burned by the three-ball this season, as evidenced by losses to Northwestern and Missouri.

Duke’s 10 players six feet or taller lends it a height advantage over most teams it faces. Nevertheless, the Blue Devils faced early struggles on the glass this season, getting outrebounded in their first two games and then again to Washington in the Gulf Coast Showcase. Those struggles seem to have faded away, for now. Duke has outrebounded each of its last four opponents, thanks in part to the efforts of hustle player senior Faith Suggs.

“Rebounding has improved with rebounders, like when Onome got 14 [against Wisconsin],” McCallie said. “But when Onome got 14, that upped the ante. It’s really a team component with rebounding. If more people can be aggressive, we can really get that going.”

The Blue Devils will have to rely on their fill-in point guard, Odom, to distribute during Boykin’s rehabilitation. It could be a while—after Lambert’s reinjury, Duke would like to avoid any risks to the Boykin’s health. After all, she may be the boost the Blue Devils need to get back in the NCAA tournament hunt.


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