Last season, Duke lost its first two ACC matchups before winning its next four on its way to an 11-5 conference record.
The Blue Devils will look to start a similar winning streak Thursday when they take on Georgia Tech at 7 p.m. at McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta. For the first time in school history, Duke opened its ACC slate with two undefeated top-10 opponents, dropping both by a combined margin of 34.
Although that was likely not the result head coach Joanne P. McCallie was hoping for, she believes the experience playing against top tier talent will help her team the rest of the way.
“It is a great opportunity,” McCallie said. “Obviously we fell short in both of them, but the rebounding, the defense, the intensity of guarding excellent players, the taking care of the basketball—there are so many intangibles relative to the physicality of the game as well. So without a doubt you learn, you grow and you learn from those experiences.”
Sitting with just a 1-2 record against top-25 opponents, the Yellow Jackets are not the same caliber of team as the Wolfpack or Cardinals. Nevertheless, Georgia Tech (11-4, 1-1 in the ACC) is still one of the better programs in the ACC and will be just as physical of an opponent as its northern counterparts, ranking 43rd in the country in rebounding and 14th in offensive boards.
“They are really aggressive on the glass,” McCallie said. “They will miss shots but they will get in there, sometimes sending five people to the offensive glass. [It will be a] very physical game. They have got a very strong inside presence with [freshman forward Elizabeth Dixon].”
Dixon leads the Yellow Jackets in both rebounding at 6.8 boards per contest and field goal percentage, converting at a 53.9 percent mark. But she is by no means the only newcomer—or the only Elizabeth—the Blue Devils (8-6, 0-2) will have to prepare for since defeating Georgia Tech 77-59 a year ago.
Fellow freshman Elizabeth Balogun has been lighting up the scoreboards all season long, leading the Yellow Jackets with 14.7 points a night. The Chattanooga, Tenn., native has also earned ACC Rookie of the Week three times this year—the most recent honor coming just this past week after Balogun led Georgia Tech in both scoring and rebounding during its first two ACC games against Boston College and No. 1 Notre Dame.
Furthermore, Georgia Tech has a stifling pressure defense, ranking 13th in the nation with more than 11 steals a game. That is something the Blue Devils could especially have problems with, as Duke’s 19.5 turnovers per contest—including 24 in a very sloppy showing against Louisville—rank 306th in the country.
“You got to play aggressive,” McCallie said. “You got to be attacking and we need to handle their press. They press a lot so we need to take advantage of that and look to score.”
One player who is going to be very important if the Blue Devils hope to come out of Atlanta with a victory is junior forward Leaonna Odom. Odom struggled entering Duke’s matchup with the Cardinals, failing to produce a double-digit scoring output in the team’s three previous contests. But the Lampoc, Calif., native found her groove against one of the country’s powerhouses, leading Duke with 16 points, seven rebounds, three steals and two blocks.
“[Odom] played so hard and aggressive,” McCallie said. “She played at a pro level in terms of her quickness and attack mode and that is the difference. She went hard on defense and on offense [and] she went into the boards hard. [Odom has] been learning how to be consistent, but without question she really went after it against Louisville and [against] NC State she had some great moments. So hopefully she can continue with Georgia Tech.”
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After the Yellow Jackets, the Blue Devils will return to Cameron Indoor Stadium to play Miami Jan. 17. After missing out on the opportunity with its first two conference foes, Duke really needs to start pulling out some quality wins if the team hopes to make its 24th NCAA tournament appearance in 25 seasons.
“If you look at our games—whether we have been competitive with Oregon State, very competitive with NC State and then at moments with Louisville—I feel really good about the team,” McCallie said. “I think we play really hard and I think we will take full advantage of every opportunity. But I am not into speculation. I am just [going] into every game one at a time.”