After its worst ACC start in over a quarter-century, Duke finally won its first conference matchup of the season against Wake Forest.
Now, the Blue Devils will hope to keep that momentum rolling into Sunday, when the team takes on No. 13 Syracuse at 1 p.m. at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Orange represent Duke’s sixth ranked opponent on the year, and the third in conference play alone. So while the Blue Devils’ record may not be an ideal start to the campaign, head coach Joanne P. McCallie believes this difficult schedule is preparing her squad for the rest of the season.
“We have been playing top-10 teams, top-20 teams—a front loaded conference schedule,” McCallie said. “We have really just been wanting to get better...I am sorry that we didn’t get Florida State or get some of those, but for a young team without three point guards it was a front loaded schedule...we want to get better. That is our main objective.”
If McCallie wants a challenge, she will certainly get one in Syracuse. The Orange play with a fast pace that could turn the contest into a blowout quickly, with the spearhead of that transition attack being star point guard Tiana Mangakahia.
There is no fancy way to say it—Mangakahia is one of the best players in the country. The Australian led the nation with 9.8 assists per game last year including a 60.4 percent assist rate that was over 15 points greater than the next highest mark. Now, despite the first team All-ACC recipient's assist numbers falling to 7.9 a night and second in the nation, many are saying Mangakahia should forego her senior year of eligibility and declare for the 2019 WNBA Draft.
And with Duke (9-9, 1-5 in the ACC) down its top three point guards—Kyra Lambert and Mikayla Boykin to ACL tears and Rayah Craig to unspecified reasons—the 5-foot-6 star will certainly have a great opportunity to impress scouts Sunday.
“I think we obviously need to slow the tempo of the game down,” McCallie said. “We should not be going up and down in transition. We need containment on [Mangakahia]. She is going to score points—the question is how she will score points. No layups for her would be great.”
Recent ACC foes, however, have appeared to find a way to contain Syracuse. After a 4-0 conference start, the Orange (15-4, 4-2) have dropped two consecutive unranked matchups to Georgia Tech and Miami. So what did the Yellow Jackets and Hurricanes do that other teams failed to accomplish? Letting Syracuse hoist up the 3-point shot.
Despite ranking just 150th nationally in 3-point percentage, the Orange have jacked up 573 shots from downtown this year—fourth in the country. Those contrasting statistics could not have been more apparent in the team’s two recent losses, with Syracuse hitting just 8-of-42 shots beyond the arc against Georgia Tech and then 5-of-32 against Miami.
“I think we have done a better job playing in-between,” McCallie said regarding how her team has improved defending the three-point shot, one of Duke’s biggest weaknesses early in the year. “You cannot just run at people crazy, because people can both shoot and put the ball on the floor. So I think we have better overall spacing on defense and better closeouts.”
Offensively for the Blue Devils, guard Haley Gorecki has seen a complete turnaround in her efficiency numbers over Duke’s last two games. The junior has struggled all year shooting the ball, including a 2-for-12 performance in the team’s narrow home loss to the Hurricanes. But Gorecki followed that up by converting on nine of her 18 attempts against Florida State and a 5-of-9 showing in the Blue Devils’ win over the Demon Deacons. Her production will be essential if Duke has any chance to upset Syracuse.
“[Gorecki] is just such an excellent player,” McCallie said. “I think she is just slowing down and seeing the game. I mean she has had many defenses played against her—box-and-one, triangle-and-two. She always draws a great defender. But I think she just is slowing down and not working so hard to get open all the time, but actually slowing down on offense and letting the play come to her.”
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After the Orange, the Blue Devils will travel to Boston College, the team’s first of five straight unranked opponents before a trip to South Bend, Ind. against No. 1 Notre Dame.