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Duke women's basketball proves it can hang, but struggles against ranked opponents continue

<p>The Blue Devils proved they could hang with the NCAA's best Sunday, but still came up short of an upset.</p>

The Blue Devils proved they could hang with the NCAA's best Sunday, but still came up short of an upset.

With 5:32 to go in the third quarter, the Blue Devils led the Wolfpack 40-30—the only double-digit lead either team would have all afternoon in Cameron Indoor Stadium—and ESPN gave the Blue Devils a win probability over 80 percent.

But Duke would beat the odds and lose this one Sunday, producing another close loss to a ranked opponent for the Blue Devils.

“It was a great basketball game, a very fun basketball game, a very interesting. A lot of dynamics to it,” said head coach Joanne P. McCallie. “There are just some good lessons for us in terms of closing out that kind of possession basketball games, because it was very much a possession basketball game.”

The loss to N.C. State marked the Blue Devils’ 13th-straight loss to a ranked opponent. The last Duke win against a ranked opponent came all the way back in the 2018 NCAA tournament when the Blue Devils bulldozed Georgia by a score of 66-40. Since then, the Blue Devils have come up against a brick wall every time they faced off against members of the AP Top 25.  The closest they had come to a win, prior to this season, was a nine-point loss to Syracuse last January.

In just this season, the Blue Devils are 0-4 against ranked teams, both of the first two losses coming by over 20 points. But, just under a month ago, the Blue Devils traveled to take on then-No. 7 Louisville, seemingly flipping the script. They jumped out to an early lead there and forced the Cardinals to fight their way back, but with under a minute to go, with the score tied, the Cardinals hit a dagger three to put them up for good. Duke's loss to the Wolfpack Sunday would similarly feature a dagger three.

With less than five minutes to go, Duke held a three-point lead. A Grace Hunter pull-up triple tied the game, and after a Leaonna Odom jumper gave Duke the lead back, Hunter sank another 3-pointer. Then, with a minute-and-half to go, withDuke down just two, looking to tie or take back the lead, the ball once again ended up in Hunter’s hands. She barely thought twice and sank another three, giving N.C. State a five-point lead that proved to be insurmountable. 

“They’re a good team—they’re going to make shots,” said graduate guard Haley Gorecki. “But, at the same time, we just have to make adjustments for ourselves. We can’t let our energy and intensity [slip on defense].”

Especially evident Sunday was Duke’s inconsistent bench presence. Of the three bench players that played, only freshman Azana Baines scored any points, with both Mikayla Boykin and Miela Goodchild going scoreless. Despite today’s offensive deficiencies from the bench, McCallie remains optimistic about the second unit.

“It’s been pretty good at times and again, Mikayla at Syracuse went 4-of-5 from three,” McCallie said. “So again, different games break different ways. It’s really a team concept, different people can step up at different times and I think you just got to go with the subs and do what you can do. But we definitely have people that can step up.”

The Blue Devils have proven they can hang with the best teams in the conference, but they still haven’t been able to find the end-of-game energy that they so desperately need. With the home stretch coming up, the Blue Devils are going to need to find that energy. If they don’t, they’ll be at risk of missing the NCAA tournament for the second year in a row, which would mark the first time since the beginning of McCallie's tenure.

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