The Blue Devils are one of the few most-talented teams in the ACC, but 60% of that talent is new to Durham, N.C. For 11.5 minutes on Thursday, the latter was more apparent. But for the next 14.5, the former shone through.
Duke opened its season with a 86-50 exhibition win against Wingate at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Thursday night, its first game with fans in attendance in 563 days. The Blue Devils struggled early, with the Bulldogs holding a lead as late as 2:09 in the first quarter. But a 33-7 run across the end of the first half and beginning of the second propelled Duke out to the victory.
Wing Celeste Taylor scored the game’s first eight points and finished with 17, on 8-of-13 shooting, plus five rebounds and three assists. Off-ball guard Miela Goodchild led the Blue Devils with 18 points, three 3-pointers and a perfect seven-for-seven from the free-throw line (which would’ve tied her career-high in free-throw makes in a regulation game). Point guard Shayeann Day-Wilson and wing Nyah Green joined her in double-digits; the former had 11 points and six assists against just one missed shot and one turnover, while the latter had 11 points and three steals.
“It was good to have a dress rehearsal. That's kind of what we talked about in the locker room—just a good chance for us to get out and play against somebody different,” head coach Kara Lawson said. “I thought we had a good balanced attack tonight. That's something that we had last year as well. I know we only played four games, but I think we had four different leading-scorers in our games last year. So tonight, I was pleased with how we played offensively, shared the ball, passed it down the open player, and then got great looks.”
Despite the shakiness of Duke’s first-half play—several “touchdowns” were overthrown, communication on switching ball screens was mediocre—the Blue Devils showed several glimpses of potential. Taylor showed more offensive potential in her first few minutes than she had in most of her 2020-21 season at Texas, creating multiple scores on pull-up jumpers. Wing Lexi Gordon moved well off the ball, and big wing Elizabeth Balogun was her usual omnipresent self on defense.
Partway through the second quarter was when those glimpses turned into points, with the point guards leading the charge. Day-Wilson kicked off Duke’s run with a crossover to get a wide lane and went downhill to pull up for a short jumper. After a Goodchild and-one, Day-Wilson created two points on a no-look bullet to an open Gordon at the rim, who got fouled on the shot.
Not to be outdone, point guard Vanessa de Jesus checked in and got to work, immediately running a side pick-and-roll where she sliced into the paint and kicked it out to an open Balogun on the wing. The next time she got on offense, de Jesus slashed her way through the paint, using hesitation dribbles to draw defenders in so she could open up Taylor spotting up behind the arc for a kick-out.
De Jesus ended the half with a “touchdown” right into a running Taylor's bread basket for a layup. That made Taylor the seventh Blue Devil to score in their 19-1 run to close the second quarter, with the crowd swelling louder every score.
“It's been awesome having new teammates,” Goodchild said. “We've been really growing together in the summer, and then in the preseason, on and off the court. So it was really exciting to get out there together on the court for the first time in an official game. I think we did great. I think we will definitely grow as time goes, our chemistry will build. But yeah, I think that's kind of showing from our preseason working together.”
Duke’s scheme also played a role in their run. Day-Wilson was able to find Gordon open under the basket because the latter’s baseline cut was complemented by a perimeter relocation to the corner she cut from; so when Day-Wilson jumped to pass, the weakside corner defender was in a bind. The first de Jesus kick-out in the run was set up because Blue Devil center Jade Williams flipped her screen once it was clear Wingate was icing the pick-and-roll. Duke’s second-half offensive run included a pistol flare to open a three and multiple Chicago actions to effect middle offense.
Trying to implement a smooth offense, one that passes out of a Chicago across to a weakside pick-and-roll, or from a high stagger into an Oklahoma, is always tricky. Doing so at the collegiate level, with 60% new faces and versatility up and down, is really hard.
As much was clear in the first quarter, when the Blue Devils were clearly trying to get to Chicagos or Princeton concepts, but just weren’t connecting; Duke turned the ball over five times and recorded just three assists that period.
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Defensive miscues were less damaging, but persisted throughout the game. Players had to physically push each other to hedge on ball screens, or scream at each other when they weren’t recovering out to shooters. Most of Wingate’s baskets through the first three quarters came on either Blue Devil miscommunications or improper recoveries when trying to move from transition to halfcourt defense.
That’s how the Bulldogs nearly ended the first quarter tied, but Duke’s talent was simply too much as it raced to a 42-19 halftime lead. The game ended 86-50 as the Blue Devil defense couldn’t hold its first-half performance down the stretch, though most of that was due to them having a few players from the end of their bench.
By the end of game, the crowd had grown raucous, repeatedly chanting “our house!” as time expired.
“My voice is definitely gonna go quicker [this year]. Last year, [the players could] hear me so easily with no fans. And now it's raspy already. So I anticipate having to yell louder,” said Lawson. “The energy was great. It was awesome to see the community come out, students there. I think our team is going to be really fun to watch this year. So I think as the year goes on, I think we'll see the excitement build throughout campus and through the community about coming to watch us play.”