It was a successful Senior Night in Cameron for the surging Blue Devils.
With Senior Night taking place in the midst of Duke playing its best basketball of the season, it was seemingly the perfect storm for a dispatching of Virginia on Thursday night in Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Blue Devils exemplified outstanding ball movement and toughness to the tune of a 62-47 victory, pushing their winning streak to five. With Leaonna Odom, Haley Gorecki, and Jade Williams leading the way with 43 combined points, Duke maintained its spot at third in the ACC and avenged its 66-63 road loss to Virginia Jan. 9.
“We played well defensively, offensively we always want to play better, but I think we’re going to start cutting loose on that a little bit more now. Senior Days are kind of loaded, with emotion, concern of travel, family, and just all sorts of things. We’ll just be moving forward and playing together," head coach Joanne P. McCallie said about the balancing act of an emotional night and a tough ACC battle.
Right from the start, the Blue Devils (16-10, 10-5 in the ACC) were able to control the pace of the contest thanks to their ball-handlers always looking up the court. Multiple times during the opening period, Duke guards were able to take advantage of the methodical style of Virginia (11-15, 6-9) by launching a pass nearly the length of the court to jumpstart a fast break. Gorecki proved to be especially willing to push the tempo, further displaying her versatility as a playmaker to go along with her unique ability to get her own shot in the half court.
Kyra Lambert proved to be a steady hand in terms of running the offensive sets, as the senior point guard reeled her teammates in when the matchup called for a slower pace. This displays her value to the team and the program as a leader, which has been increasingly obvious as the season has progressed. Gorecki and Williams had obvious chemistry during the first half, with Williams on the receiving end of multiple Gorecki assists due to Williams showing the ability to get great position on the interior and roll off of screens.
Duke ran multiple double screens and pin downs to free up Gorecki, who was once again patient during a lackluster shooting night by her standards. The graduate student’s ability to exploit holes in a defense led to consistent appearances at the charity stripe, showing that she can make an impact on the scoring column in multiple ways. Concurrently, Odom utilized her athleticism to bring in 12 rebounds and rack up five crucial steals, showing the value of playing position-less basketball and moving the talented senior around defensively.
As has been the case throughout this recent winning streak, Duke kept countering any potential runs threatened by the Cavaliers. Efficiency on the offensive end and constant disruptiveness in the passing lanes defensively kept Virginia at bay, as the Blue Devils always appeared to be in command during the final twenty minutes. For the entire contest, Duke held Virginia to just 32.1 percent from the field and rejected eight shot attempts than the visitors. Virginia guard Jocelyn Willoughby, one of the greatest scorers in the history of the program, was held in check with only six made field goals in 37 minutes.
“That’s a successful job against her. She’s an excellent player, one of the best in the league, and she only took two free throws? Is that right? Am I reading that right? Outstanding defense,” McCallie said regarding Duke’s limiting of Willoughby.
If there was anything to harp on from the Blue Devils’ performance, it would be their inability to take care of the ball. An alarming stretch of giveaways during the third quarter threatened to let Virginia back in the game, but Duke maintained a double-digit lead for the vast majority of the second half.
The victory was an appropriate way to celebrate a talented and dedicated senior group that has overcome individual and collective hurdles at Duke. Odom, Gorecki, and Lambert all made significant contributions throughout the victory, but it would not truly be Senior Night without an appearance from seldom utilized Emily Schubert. Schubert making her way to the scorer’s table sent the crowd into a frenzy, despite the senior center receiving less than a minute of playing time.
“Playing the entire season with them, I’m not calling it Senior Day, but it’s special," Gorecki reflected. "This group of girls, this team, is super special. So, any game, it is fun being out there. Every game is fun being on the court with them. Obviously, the seniors right here and Emily [Schubert] as well, we won’t obviously play with each other again.”
Continuing on with the theme of facing off against teams they lost to earlier in the ACC slate, Duke will travel to Raleigh to take on No. 10 N.C. State Monday night. The rivalry presents another major opportunity for the Blue Devils to impress the selection committee and improve their seeding come NCAA tournament.
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