A 14-point win over the top team in the Atlantic 10 is nothing to scoff at. But that coming in spite of 18 turnovers and seven missed free throws is eye-popping.
Duke travelled north to Dayton, Ohio for its first road game of the Kara Lawson era, and came away with a 70-56 win over the Atlantic 10-favorite Flyers.
“One of the things we talked about with our group before the game was that [Dayton’s] really good, and [it's] gonna make runs, and we're gonna have to handle that,” said Lawson. “And that's what happened. I look at our defense—two 14-point quarters and one 10-point quarter against an NCAA-tournament team. That's really good defense. So I'm really proud of our group for doing that.”
The teams traded blows in a low-scoring opening, before the Blue Devils (2-0) used an 11-4 run to race to a 24-12 lead. Dayton (1-1) went on a 19-5 run, however, across the end of the first and most of the second quarters to a 31-29 lead of its own, mostly against Duke bench units.
The Flyers last lead would come at 3:40 in that second quarter, though. Duke wing Lexi Gordon hit back-to-back threes to kick off the Blue Devils outscoring Dayton by 16 through the final buzzer. The Flyers were able to close things up in the mid-third, but Duke once again turned to its starters and sprinted to victory.
Gordon once again led the Blue Devils in scoring, this time with 15 points, her 5-for-10 shooting from three mirroring her performance in the team’s opener last Thursday. Point guard Shayeann Day-Wilson had 13 points on 5-for-7 shooting—3-for-5 from three—with three assists against four turnovers, while off-ball guard Celeste Taylor and center Jade Williams joined them in double-digits. Taylor had an off night from the field, but used eight free-throw attempts and gritty off-ball work to still contribute with seven rebounds—four of them offensive—two assists and two steals with just one turnover. Williams shot 5-of-6, also grabbing seven boards and blocking three shots.
Williams did add five turnovers to the night, offset by just two assists; but those numbers belie her importance to the Duke offense against Dayton. Though combo guard Vanessa de Jesus led the team with six assists, plus six rebounds, as the sophomore continues to stuff the stat sheet, Williams was once again a fulcrum for the Blue Devil offense.
Duke invigorated its offense last year by lifting Williams to the elbow. Split cuts enabled de Jesus and off-ball guard Jaida Patrick to maximize their scoring, with Williams being both a capable passer and smart about reversing to the backside. In their season opener, however, the Blue Devils had Williams positioned back at the low block for most of regulation. And there wasn’t a lot of halfcourt team offense, either; 73.4% of Duke’s offensive possessions ended in either transition, post-ups, spots-ups, isolations or put-backs, according to Synergy.
That number dropped to 54.2% against Dayton, however, with the number of team offensive plays—pick-and-rolls, screens, handoffs and cuts—nearly doubling. The Blue Devils went back to their high-post success, turning a variety of actions out of simple elbow and horns sets. They had particular success unveiling two new actions there: a get screen dribble handoff and a weave pick-and-roll. Those two plays were run at least a combined nine times, for an elite 1.57 points per play and two fouls drawn.
The impressive thing about those sets is that they require well-rehearsed timing and positioning to work. There’s multiple screens or bumps and off-ball movements to occupy help that are integral to making them work — something you expect to work from an N.C. State team returning its top eight players, not a Blue Devil roster with 62% of its minutes coming from new players.
“I was in Tokyo, I was gone for a large chunk of the summer. And so our assistant coaches were the ones that really, really worked with our players, drilled them on the foundational principles of our system. They've taught them that,” said Lawson. “And then we were able to hit the ground running in the fall because of the work they did in the summer with all our new players… It just makes me feel optimistic that we're going to be able to keep growing, because I feel like our chemistry is just starting to build.”
Despite the newness of so many of Duke’s players, the Blue Devils do have some long-established foundations they can turn to. And a decisive factor against the Flyers was the chemistry between Williams and fellow center Onome Akinbode-James. Having played together for three years—the first two of which as an awkward schematic pairing—the pair can play off each other despite skillsets that don’t perfectly blend.
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And so, as Dayton was finding some success attacking the Blue Devils in the paint in the second half, Lawson turned to a Williams-Akinbode-James pairing for the first time this year. The two played six minutes together, and put up a +51.6 net rating, per CBB Analytics.
Two-big lineups aren’t especially hard to manage, though Duke starts a big wing instead of a second big. Two-big lineups where both players are best at center, though, are tricky. But the hundreds of minutes Williams and Akinbode-James have played together over the years have refined their high-low passing and their big-to-big paint passing, as well as each player's ability to rotate to rim protection when the other is defensively drawn away from the cup. So when the Blue Devils needed more juice inside, they had an established pairing to turn to.
“The game was a game of runs, so I feel like we just had to answer back,” said Williams. “I thought we did a good job of just readjusting when we needed to—if they wanted to take away the three, we can go inside; if they want to go inside, we shoot the three, vice versa. So I think no matter what the percentage was, that we were gonna score regardless.”
The Blue Devils return to Durham with a quick turnaround to a home game against UNC-Wilmington Sunday at 2 p.m.