FORT WORTH, TX.—Everything is big in Texas. The size of the state. The expansive population. The magnitude of work Duke put in to ensure a victory against Alabama.
This weekend, four Blue Devils returned to their home state as Duke trekked to The Lone Star State to battle the Crimson Tide. After registering three wins to open the season, the team came ready to reign the court and exert itself on a larger national stage at the Maggie Dixon Classic. Duke won 74-71 to best Alabama, and evidently, it was no easy game for either team Sunday afternoon at Schollmaier Arena.
"This was a hard-fought game for us. I told our group in the locker room. There's a lot of things we wish we would've done better," head coach Kara Lawson said in the post-game media conference. "At the same for us to lock in and focus and have some resiliency towards the end and be able to make critical plays that we needed to win the game—I was very encouraged by that. It's really hard to fight back from a deficit."
With 1:16 on the clock, Gordon's two free throws were what started the last back-and-forth bout of the day, and a basket added by Williams put Duke up 70-69. The crowd's cheers were substantial yet quickly countered by an Alabama layup for the Crimson Tide to lead by one point with less than a minute left.
With less than six seconds remaining, Duke established its victory through the efforts of a jumper added by Williams and Onome Akinbode-James' two made three throws. And this time, the cheers from the Blue Devil faithful were even louder.
"It never really felt like we had control until like right at the end," Lawson said. "I thought what led to that was we finally locked down and got a couple stops, and then we executed—we were able to attack and get to the paint a couple times. Jade [Williams] made a couple of critical layups, which helped push us ahead a couple of times. I would say that we just hung in there, kept playing to it, we kept emphasizing when they came over."
Even though the game went down to the wire, signs did not always point to such a nail-biting finish.
Alabama took the ball at tip-off, but it was Duke (4-0) that took control from the first rebound, with Celeste Taylor putting up the first two scores for the Blue Devils within two minutes of play. The game seemed to be a back-and-forth match from the get-go, as the Crimson Tide (2-2) followed close to Duke's lead. Yet, the starting five quickly asserted Blue Devil dominance, holding a 15-8 lead by the first timeout.
"My approach is let's get really good at us," Lawson said. "And then if we can get really good at us, then that's going to give us the best chance to be really good against whoever the opponent is."
Despite Duke taking the lead from the start, Alabama proved that Sunday's game was no exhibition after it managed to converge on the Blue Devils' edge and tie the match multiple times in the second quarter. From there, it was each player's strong-willed and combined efforts on the hardwood to take back the contest.
To set off the more exhilarating half of the game, senior guard Elizabeth Balogun blocked a Crimson Tide shot to turn around the game again for Duke. A fast break to the other end of the court led to a Shayeann Day-Wilson shot, earning the Blue Devils three free throws, two of which the freshman guard made to put Duke at a 34-30 lead at halftime.
Duke began the second half with more cohesive play to maintain its lead, starting with a Jade Williams layup and a Lexi Gordon jumper in the first minute. Yet again, Alabama inched closer, no doubt due to the high number of fouls on both sides of the court. By the end of the third quarter, Duke was no longer pacing the Crimson Tide, but the other way around as Alabama overpowered them 52-51.
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"We had some downs, but we're just learning how to fight back," Williams said. "I think that's an important aspect of a good winning team. I mean, you just got to be able to roll with the punches and take it to the next play."
Celeste Taylor led Duke with 21 points, four rebounds and three assists. Day-Wilson and Williams also filled the stat sheet for Duke, posting 11 points, two rebounds and three assists and 14 points and seven rebounds, respectively.
The Blue Devils return to competition at Cameron Indoor Stadium to host matches Wednesday and Sunday against Appalachian State and Troy before taking on tough company with a contest against No. 9 Iowa next Thursday.
Ana Young is a Trinity first-year and a staff reporter for the news and sports departments.