How does a Duke team getting blown out by contenders and choking away close games completely turn around its season?
In the words of Georgia Tech coach Nell Fortner, “It’s all about your players—all you have to do is look at [this] game and look at those players at Duke.”
As much was clear to the Yellow Jackets, as they lost 58-46 to the Blue Devils Sunday afternoon. Five Duke players scored at least six points, four shot at least 50 percent from the field, six notched a steal, and eight grabbed a board. It was a team effort in every sense.
The consistency of bench minutes has seemed to be key. Duke spent most of the first semester playing the hot hand with its bench minutes, which prevented its talent from getting into a rhythm and left less talented players playing significant time even as they regressed.
Now, sharpshooting guard Miela Goodchild has settled into her role, in which she can go all-out while still finding consistency in her game, while guard Mikayla Boykin is able to showcase her immense talent against other teams’ second units. This also means that resurgent guard Kyra Lambert’s shooting struggles and sophomore forward Onome Akinbode-James’ relatively slow development are less pronounced, as they can get rest without the Blue Devils having to worry about the quality of their replacements.
The proof is in the pudding. Wins over a decent Virginia Tech team, a Syracuse group that played some great games to begin the season and Georgia Tech which stood third in the ACC, all point to a Duke team coming into its own at just the right time.
“I think we’re a very good fourth-quarter team. I think that’s been proven, we’ve just been trying to extend that to all quarters and keep that intensity up,” head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “I think every game breaks differently, but also there’s a mindset of things that we want to do together that is very clear, there’s some lessons learned.”
The most radical thing about these Blue Devils might be the optimism they’re now inspiring. Odom’s recent dominance has helped assuage concerns over Duke’s high-end production. All four of its ACC losses have been by two or fewer possessions, and it has four wins or close losses against teams currently projected to play in March. In fact, an RPI-based bracketology has the Blue Devils firmly in the driver’s seat for a tournament seed.
The fate of this Duke team is likely to be decided in the coming weeks, as its next three games are against teams with March Madness hopes. Two games remain against both North Carolina State and North Carolina, each of which was in ESPN’s last projected bracket. Those, plus Florida State and their rematch with Virginia Tech, will prove whether or not this is a mirage.
What may bring down this Duke team is its impressive ability to make the easy stuff incredibly difficult. Slow offensive possessions that force heaves at the end of shot clocks and valuable baskets allowed by their defensive zone still haunt the Blue Devils, even if those situations have been less frequent in recent weeks.
“Let’s be honest, we had 22 turnovers,” McCallie said candidly. “The game breaks very differently if that turnover margin is down to 12. Because our shooting percentage at one point was 64 percent, and then there were turnovers. And I think offensively we did some very smart things. We just want the ball more. We want the ball in our hands more.”
In truth, the Blue Devils who now look promising aren’t much different than those who got blown out by Northwestern, South Carolina and FGCU. The obvious issues are still there. But they’ve smoothed out many rough edges of their games and sit only a winning streak away from a return to national contention.
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“Different games break different ways. Different defenses work better in certain games. Different groups of people work better,” said McCallie. “It’s just like a puzzle, just trying to find the absolute best in what we’re trying to do.”