GREENSBORO, N.C.—“Very disappointing.”
Head Coach Joanne P. McCallie’s opening statement after her team’s season-ending loss to Florida State in the ACC tournament rang true not only during Thursday’s game, but over the course of a season filled with close calls, injuries, and missed opportunities.
“There's a time to sit back and think about tremendous growth our team has had through the season and all the things that we're proud of about getting better,” McCallie reflected. “And there's a lot of things. And there's a lot of things this team put into place and was dealt a very difficult situation, and that's all true and that's all been documented.”
After dispelling Pittsburgh easily in the first round, the Blue Devils, whether it be from tired legs or lack of physicality, were dominated on the glass and loose balls from the jump, losing the battle on the boards 42-29.
“It was pretty much, I think, probably a combination [of playing a back to back and getting outworked]. But rebounding has been an issue. And putting bodies—the contact was so important,” McCallie said.
Duke was unable to ever find a rhythm over the course of the season, opening the season with a blowout loss against Northwestern and then failing to regain its footing in the Gulf Coast Classic. Losing two key contributors in point guards Kyra Lambert and Mikayla Boykin set the team back even further, culminating in a season ending before the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament for the first time since 1993 and an 0-7 record against teams in the AP Top 25.
Despite sloppy play and poor shooting throughout the night, the Blue Devils were able to stay close for most of the game thanks to their mostly consistent defensive pressure. Where the Seminoles were able to get an upper hand was creating extra opportunities and killing their opponents with clutch baskets at the end of the shot clock.
“It's a really important part to finishing our defense,” McCallie stressed. “There were times we could have great stops. It's all five on the defensive end. Everyone's got to stay in and make contact. We've had that lesson before, unfortunately. And it's important to take this on.”
In an otherwise forgetful year, Duke can find solace in the way it finished the season and what it has returning next year. The Blue Devils came into Thursday riding a four-game winning streak, including big wins over Clemson and North Carolina, and the team will bring back most contributors including seniors Leaonna Odom and Haley Gorecki, who made the all-ACC first team this season.
“I mean, obviously, unfortunately, like you said, Faith and Sofia aren't going to be here. But having the team that we have, but like you said, the last five games, the experience and the hard work that we've been putting into, it's great to see. So carrying that over to next season, I'm real excited,” Gorecki said.
In retrospect, McCallie and her team competed and fought closely in most of their losses over the course of the season, but failed to capitalize with the score close and the game on the line. Florida State stretched their halftime lead of four coming out of the break, but after the Duke clawed back to make it 35-31, they fell apart and never got closer than seven again.
“The most important thing is to take this head on, okay,” McCallie said. “To look at this and understand how this game, despite the fact that it was poor shooting for us certainly, despite all the problems, we were in a seven-point ball game and a six-point ball game in the fourth quarter. That's what the message is. You just find a way. It was not about perfection.”
Missing the NCAA tournament for just the second time in McCallie’s career, but both in the span of four years, shows that the Blue Devils are not far removed from rejoining the elite of the conference, but it will take some major introspection to avoid another disappointing season at the bottom of the ACC.
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