Holding on to leads in the fourth quarter has not exactly been the forte of Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie’s team this season.
But a 63-59 win against Clemson Tuesday night had McCallie nearly ecstatic in the post game press conference.
“It’s just fun. It’s just fun to coach these guys, as you can tell,” she said with a grin plastered on her face.
And she had every reason to be smiling, her Blue Devils taking a 10-point lead with about five minutes to play and bearing down the rest of the way to earn their 13th win on the season, including the team’s eighth in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
But it was not smooth sailing the whole way for the young Duke team. The Blue Devils carried an eight-point lead into the final seconds of the third, but a succession of misplays had the Tigers back within just three when the buzzer sounded to end the quarter. Onome Akinbode-James committed a foul with 10 seconds on the clock, and after Clemson drained both shots from the charity stripe, it appeared as if Duke would take a six-point lead into the final 10 minutes, or even add to it with a final possession. But a turnover and quick foul by Leaonna Odom sent the Tigers back to the line—Simone Westbrook made one of two to cut the Blue Devil advantage to five.
At that point, with the clock showing seven seconds to go, it looked as if Duke would calmly take the ball up the floor, likely giving the rock to the hot hand of either Miela Goodchild or Haley Gorecki, who had 17 and 21 points on the night, respectively. But a turnover on the inbound gave Clemson a layup as time expired, and it looked as if the Blue Devils were primed for another collapse.
Akinbode-James, who had 14 boards on the night, recognized this sudden surge from the Tigers. “Today, I think we were able to keep our tempo, sometimes it got a little rocky” she admitted, acknowledging this lapse from her team. “Once we can keep our tempo, we play great.”
And play great they did, putting up the first six points of the final quarter thanks to sharpshooting from Goodchild and Gorecki. Halfway through the fourth, all of the Duke scoring came from this pair, who each dumped in another three en route to the 10-point lead, secured by an inside layup by Jade Williams. But the Tigers would not go down without a fight.
Kobi Thornton dropped in back-to-back layups to narrow the margin to six. Danielle Edwards followed up with a mid-range jumper to cut the lead to just four. And though Onome Akinbode-James was quick to respond with a two of her own, two consecutive layups by Clemson forced McCallie to call a timeout, her squad holding only a two-point edge with just over a minute to go.
It was again at this pivotal point in the contest that the young Blue Devil team seemed primed for catastrophe. But Akinbode-James knew that there was something different about this game, this late in the season.
“We’ve played a lot of games at this point— you would think there would be some growth,” the freshman declared—and she was correct.
This answer drew a hearty chuckle from McCallie, who had every reason to be laughing. After the 30-second timeout, she watched, standing, from the sideline as her team put up strong defensive possessions in the final minute of play to close the game out, including a monster block in the paint from Akinbode-James for her sixth and biggest rejection on the night.
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The shot, had it fallen, would have knotted the score at 61, and perhaps have given Clemson the fuel it needed to polish off the comeback. As it was, Duke grabbed the ball back after ensuing turnovers by both sides, and Goodchild put up her two most important points of the game from the charity stripe to widen the gap to four. This proved too much for the Tigers, which missed two triples as time expired, setting off smiles on the faces of the players and coaches that would last through the press conference, and probably for the rest of the night.
“The growth has been incredible across the board,” McCallie declared. “These [two] are first-year student-athletes playing 37, 38 minutes a game and doing all sorts of interesting things,” she said, gesturing to Onome Akinbode-James and Miela Goodchild.
Perhaps she was restraining herself from rambling on about everything her team did right Tuesday night. Because many interesting things were done, including add to the team’s resume for postseason play heading into another Tobacco Road Rivalry matchup, and then the ACC tournament. If the Blue Devils can put up another performance against North Carolina like they did earlier in the season, when they dismantled the Tar Heels in a 16-point victory, the team will be primed for the postseason after pulling their record up to a .500 mark.
“At this point, if you don’t grow, there’s not a lot of time left,” said Akinbode-James with a smile. “We’re definitely hitting that point where it's coming together,” she declared, with an affirmative nod, but remnants of an ear to ear grin still remaining.
And from McCallie, yet another laugh.