The Blue Devils always had the talent to overcome large deficits at halftime. The question Thursday was whether or not they could hold the lead once Duke regained it.
The Blue Devils allowed Clemson to fight back from a 10-point deficit to make it a 61-59 game with just over a minute left. Duke guard Miela Goodchild's layup was determined to be a charge, and Clemson had the ball as the clock ticked down. The Tigers swung it around to the right, then back to the left, until they found cutting forward Tylar Bennett, who had a seemingly wide open layup to tie the game at 61 apiece.
Freshman forward Onome Akinbode-James did not agree. She soared high for her sixth block of the game and snatched away Clemson's last hope.
The Blue Devils barely held onto their hard-earned lead in the final seconds to take their second-to-last home game of the season, 63-59, at Cameron Indoor Stadium Thursday evening. A monster 23-point third quarter and lockdown crunch-time defense led Duke to its second win in a row. After being held scoreless in Sunday’s game against Wake Forest, the Blue Devil bench combined for nine points. A previously struggling Haley Gorecki poured in 21 points and a flashy offensive display in the third quarter, and Akinbode-James finished with six blocks and 14 rebounds.
"Obviously, players make plays," head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. "Miela, Onome and Haley—everyone made plays. I think the team came out very focused. It was a little bit technical and a lot of great fight."
Duke (13-14, 5-10 in the ACC) fell prey to Clemson’s characteristically rapid tempo in the early minutes. The Tigers force 21.3 turnovers per game, and Thursday was no exception. The Blue Devils committed five turnovers in the first five minutes of play, though Clemson (18-11, 9-7) committed four of its own. At the intermission, 13 turnovers marred Duke’s side of the stat sheet, and that number doubled by the final buzzer. Leaonna Odom's play helped the Blue Devils stay within one point at the end of the first quarter, but the next period would soon devolve.
The second quarter appeared to belong to Clemson’s graduate guard Simone Westbrook. She banked in a three from the corner and coolly finished a Euro-step layup through two Blue Devils on her way to 12 first-half points. A wraparound pass to Danielle Edwards, who knocked down the corner triple, gave Westbrook her fourth assist of the half and extended the Tigers’ lead to the 31-22 at the end of the half.
The Blue Devils fell ice cold beyond the arc in Thursday’s opening frames. None of their first seven attempts struck nylon. Goodchild, only seven 3-pointers away from the Duke freshman record, could not find her touch early, missing on both of her long-range launches in the first half. Sophomore guard and bench player Jayda Adams hit the team's first first with only three minutes left in the first half—it would be their only trey of the half. However, this somehow did not bother the team much.
"‘Next play’ is a great concept," McCallie said. "‘Strong face’ is a great concept. You just have to be on to [the] next [play] quickly."
A dominant third-quarter sequence from Gorecki would soon turn the tide, though. A wing three, a pair of free throws, a teardrop in the paint and a contested corner trey from the struggling guard—in just two and a half minutes of second-half play—equalized the game at 32 apiece. From there, the whole Blue Devil squad hit its stride. Goodchild buried a wing three, and Akinbode-James put in a fast break layup to give Duke its first lead since the opening period. The Blue Devils held Clemson to 1-for-13 shooting for a long stretch, and at the end of the frame, Duke had reclaimed a 45-42 lead.
"As a team, we are gonna hit shots," Goodchild said. "We just had to find the great shot over the okay shot."
Blood pressures on both sides remained high in the final quarter. Goodchild and Gorecki knocked down back-to-back treys from the corner, but the Tigers’ Aliyah Collier responded with one of her own. However, another triple from Goodchild seemed to plunge the dagger deep into Clemson’s heart. The Tigers found themselves down 10 halfway through the fourth quarter but clawed their way back into the competition. Then came the aforementioned swat from Akinbode-James, and that was that.
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"I had gotten some blocks earlier, so I thought, ‘Ok, the referees are letting me play,'" Akinbode-James said. "On that one, I thought, ‘I’ve just gotta go. I have two fouls to give—worst case scenario, I make her go make a shot at the foul line.' So I just went for it."
Duke can boost its application for a WNIT berth in its last matchup of the regular season. The Blue Devils will take on North Carolina at noon Sunday at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The first installment of the Tobacco Road rivalry this season resulted in an 85-69 Duke victory in Chapel Hill—the highest scoring output this season for the Blue Devils. However, star Tar Heel guard Paris Kea was held out in that game due to flu symptoms, and she has returned with a fury since her recuperation. Duke must contain Kea and the rest of the Tar Heel offense to make a case for a WNIT berth and improve their seed in next week’s ACC tournament.