It's now been 713 days since Duke beat a ranked opponent in the regular season.
A 40-30 lead midway through the third quarter wasn’t enough for Duke to upset No. 7 North Carolina State Sunday afternoon in Cameron Indoor Stadium, as the Blue Devils lost 63-60. Haley Gorecki had 21 points and seven rebounds and Leaonna Odom had 13 points to go along with excellent defense, but Wolfpack star Elissa Cunane carried her team through their comeback, scoring over half of their second-half points, despite being one of their weakest links in the first half.
“Of course, [Cunane] has great talents individually, and is a very-much-improved player,” head coach Joanne P McCallie said. “But I would say her teammates, as individuals that can shoot the three and spread the defense out [were what made a tough matchup]. And they had a combination of that, as you saw, and the fouling of her—she’s a very good free throw shooter. Some post [players] aren’t good free-throw shooters, but she’s a very good one.”
The referees seemed to favor Duke in the first half, calling multiple charges against N.C. State and missing multiple shooting fouls committed by the Blue Devils. But with the game on the line, the zebras chose to make up for their first-half favoritism. Gorecki was called for a suspect charge with Duke down two and just over a minute left to play, and a Cunane travel on the ensuing possession went uncalled. In such a close game, every call matters.
“They’re a good team; they’re going to make shots,” said Gorecki. “But, at the same time, we just have to make adjustments for ourselves. We can’t let our energy and intensity… on defense slip.”
The Blue Devils (11-10, 5-5 in the ACC) opened the game on the wrong side of a 7-2 Wolfpack run, before charging back to take a 15-14 lead. The game would remain close into halftime, with Duke extending its lead to 27-23. Gorecki paced the Blue Devils with ten points, four assists, and great work both on the glass and in her defensive assignments, but what truly stood out was Duke’s full-court press.
For much of the game, the Wolfpack (21-1, 10-1) simply didn’t have the ball-handling skills necessary to break through against the plethora of excellent on-ball defense from Blue Devil guards and wings. Kyra Lambert and Miela Goodchild once again stood out in their press and on-ball defense. Odom, however, proved a menace for N.C. State’s dribblers, and when three Duke players were locking up Wolfpack players on inbounds plays, there was little room for easy passes. Six of N.C. State's last seven first-half possessions ended in turnovers.
The second half opened fairly evenly, with Elissa Cunane scoring five points as the Wolfpack closed the gap to 32-29. But an 8-0 Duke run opened up the score, while N.C. State had more turnovers than buckets for a five-minute stretch. Duke’s lead peaked during that time, with the home team up 40-30.
“They’re playing sped-up, which is what our full-court pressure is meant to do,” assistant coach Sam Miller told the Blue Devil radio show at halftime. “We didn’t really see them try to dribble through it.”
Yet the Wolfpack found ways to break through to close the third frame, as the Blue Devils dropped back a little to catch their breath. That was all that N.C. State needed to get back into a rhythm, before finally retaking the lead just over a minute into the fourth. Duke fought hard the rest of the way—even taking a two-point lead with about two minutes to play—yet the Wolfpack got hot from three, and there was little the Blue Devils could do once some key shots fell. And immediately following the no-call on Cunane’s travel, Duke missed an off-ball rotation and allowed an open triple to fall. That meant a two-possession lead for N.C. State with 35 seconds to go, something no team could reasonably overcome.
“We just lost one shooter,” said McCallie. “I mean, it’s [number] 23, it wasn’t a bunch of people. And, unfortunately, she’s a run-off-the-line kid. And we didn’t run her off the line.”
This game was practically a must-win for a Duke team looking to charge their way to a March Madness bid. Though that seemed like a long shot for Duke after blowing leads to Wake Forest and Virginia, a recent 4-1 run put them firmly in the conversation for one of the ACC’s at-large NCAA tournament bids.
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A highly competitive, close loss to a top-10 team can certainly be a point of pride. That was the takeaway from the Blue Devils’ five-point January loss to then-no. 7 Louisville. The ACC standings are determined by record, though. A black-and-white statistic that doesn’t care whether your team lost to two top-10 teams by a combined score of just eight. It only cares that you lost.