RALEIGH—Duke’s dramatic turnaround from the middle of the season is like something out of a movie, and, as per usual, the scene stealer is Haley Gorecki.
Gorecki led her team, both statistically and mentally, to a monumental 70-65 win against No. 8 North Carolina State Monday night in Reynolds Coliseum. The graduate student's 24 points were a game high and her composure down the stretch was vital for the Blue Devil win.
While her poise and skillset have always been something to admire, not even she can explain how she’s managed to exceed expectations night after night.
“I don’t have an exact answer for why, but everything’s clicking, everyone’s doing their job in their role,” said Gorecki. “Everything’s going in the right direction.”
The Palatine, Ill., native picked apart N.C. State’s defense for her ninth 20-plus point effort of the season. Additionally, she stuffed the stat sheet with five assists, four rebounds, two steals and a block.
No matter how many games Gorecki’s closed out in her career, nothing could prepare a player for the atmosphere of this game. The odds were completely against the unranked Blue Devils and although they led for the entire game, the team never felt truly in control. Especially in the final minute of play, the game could have tilted either way, but it was Gorecki that led the way to the finish line.
“I felt that our control of the ball was really purposeful in the last three minutes,” said head coach Joanne P. McCallie. “And that’s what it takes to win possession basketball games.”
In the face of a top-10 team and a sea of roaring Wolfpack fans, Gorecki didn’t let the pressure get to her. Even in the ultimate test of composure—free throws on the road—Gorecki maintained her calm and driven demeanor and knocked down a near-perfect 7-of-8.
Despite her stunning box score, the path to victory was not an easy one. After draining one in the first quarter, Gorecki couldn’t hit a three to save her life, which was unusual for a player shooting 34.5 percent from beyond the arc coming into Monday. This shortcoming forced her to adapt to another, more aggressive strategy.
She continuously cut to the hoop and finished layup after layup. However, there were plenty of times in which the Wolfpack defense wised up and applied the pressure. At that point, Gorecki dished the ball out to Jade Williams or Onome Akinbode-James for a look near the rim.
Gorecki is the engine that keeps Duke running, but an engine isn’t much use without other components to get the job done. Also playing major roles in the victory were Kyra Lambert, Leaonna Odom, and Akinbode-James, all of whom scored in double digits.
This balanced supporting cast may have been the difference-maker in this contest. Gorecki had defensive help and offensive outlets, while N.C. State star Elissa Cunane was hung out to dry by the rest of her squad. The Gorecki-led Blue Devils were playing against what was essentially a one-woman Wolfpack.
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“The evolution of this team was slow,” said McCallie. “It comes around. It doesn’t always come around when you want it to, but the way this team has worked hard, the senior leadership from Haley in particular…. It’s a long story.”
Gorecki will not be a Blue Devil forever, which means that she will need to make the most of this current team and the chemistry she has helped cultivate.
The Blue Devils have cleared their greatest hurdle of the regular season and have all but secured the third-best record in the ACC. What lies ahead is a conference tournament that looks more promising for Duke than it has in years. Pressure like this is hard to withstand, but from her recent poise and accomplishments, it looks unlikely that Gorecki will crack.