The blueprint to flustering Duke has been out for a month: Be physical. Dare the Blue Devils to go through you. Close up space—and if they still get by you, make them feel it.
Friday night, Duke tore that blueprint to shreds.
No. 1 Duke coasted past Memphis to a 1-0 second-round win, dominating possession and pace in a way the box score couldn’t capture. The Tigers tried to pressure the Blue Devils early and often, but it all went for naught; Duke broke into Memphis’ box in the second minute, and the Tigers essentially didn’t hold in Duke’s half until the last 15 minutes. And by that point, they’d been run too tired by the Blue Devils to do anything but watch their futile shots get cleared.
“I thought we didn't complain, we didn't stay on the ground, we jumped up and played through [aggressive contact],” said head coach Robbie Church. “I really thought we were tougher than we were against Old Dominion [last week]... I thought we really did a good job and reacted to the physical play much better than we had. Wake Forest [three weeks ago], I thought, kind of sidetracked us; Old Dominion did the same thing, and I think this time we were like ‘Okay, we can play through this,’ and did a much better job of it.”
Duke has had significant weakness playing through physicality this year, as many teams have proven. Since their Oct. 15 win in Winston-Salem, N.C., the Blue Devils have been fouled 74 times, or 12.3 times per game—the national median is 9.2 per game. And excluding the historically wild North Carolina game from September, Duke’s opponents have received more cards in those past six games than in the prior 12.
Those six games included: Notre Dame, where the Irish were disproportionately benefited from unique reffing; Florida State, a chippy, stop-start game all around; Louisville, a slop-fest; Wake Forest, which kneecapped the Duke attack with stoppages; and Old Dominion, which used several uncalled fouls to keep the Blue Devils scoreless in the first half. Despite going 4-1 over those games, Duke’s play clearly dropped, something Church hammered the need to fix:
“You got to play through [fouls and refs],” Church said after the Notre Dame win on Oct. 21. “You can't get rattled, you can't let that take you out of your focus… And [you] have to continue to play.”
“They tackled us hard early, they didn't mind taking yellow cards…and I felt that they definitely took us out of our rhythm of play in the first half,” Church said after the ACC tournament loss to Wake Forest. “When you play talented teams and skilled teams, especially when you get ‘one-and-done’s, you'll take three or four yellow cards…And we have to understand: That's going to happen to us. We're gonna get fouled, we're gonna get double-teamed.”
“What they were trying to do was break our rhythm of play, bring us down when they could,” Church said after the first-round win against Old Dominion. “I thought in the first half, we weren't that tough—once they fouled us, we kind of shied away.”
That those games were as close they were is a testament to the Blue Devils not being able to resoundingly overcome the challenges he’d continually described. But against the Tigers, Duke came out of the gate fighting through every bit of contact, and Memphis had nothing to counter. The refs played a notable role in that, handing the Tigers four fouls and a card in the first 35 minutes, forcing Memphis to reign in its aggressiveness.
The main causes of Duke playing through that, though, were the Blue Devils themselves. Holding mid Sophie Jones stayed on the ball despite blindside shoves, attacking mid Tess Boade kept powering drives even as Tigers were called for arm-barring her, striker Michelle Cooper remained focused as she took blows to the head. The result was Duke being able to maintain its rhythm and pace, with or without calls.
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If the Blue Devils, who finished the regular season first in RPI, weren’t imposing enough already, they corrected their biggest issue by the second round of NCAAs.
“We were definitely ready for the physicality of the game today. We knew coming into this that they were going to be a very aggressive team,” said wing back Delaney Graham. “They were talking about how they were going to come out and kick our butts the whole week. And so we were fired up, we were ready to be aggressive. And we were aggressive with each other all week in practice, too. So I think that prepared us.”
Memphis did do well to highlight Duke’s other clear weak spot: Scoring on soft coverage. Since the foundation of the Blue Devil offense is transition plays—be they Mackenzie Pluck man-down drives recycled into crossers, or Cooper-Pluck run-outs, or backline play-aheads to Cooper and Pluck and Boade in a triangle—ensuring Duke doesn’t have a spaced attacking third to move into has at times seemed a vice on its scoring.
“We have to figure out ‘What's the next thing that we have to do?’” Church said after the Wake Forest loss. “So if we can't play through them, we'll have to play over them, or we have to play around them.”
To be clear, scoring only through long build-ups and plays against a set defensive shape is quite difficult at every level, especially college. The 2020 Florida State Seminoles, one of the greatest teams in the expanded-tournament era, saw their legendary offense sputter on more than one occasion when forced purely to build up—especially by Duke itself. Florida State returned its whole roster this year and added a prolific scorer from the transfer portal and currently sits first in RPI, but has looked significantly more vulnerable than its 2020 version as teams have figured out how to force it away from transition. The difference between the Seminoles' 29-second goal against then-No. 10 Auburn in September and their 0-1-2 end to their ACC slate is stark.
The Blue Devils started to figure out the workarounds to this problem on Friday, and the weekend prior against the Monarchs—literally: Working around the defensive shape. Duke’s aggressive 3-4-2-1 formation allows it to play a variety of ways, and in its dominant second period against Old Dominion, it played through its wing backs; Olivia Migli had one of her best halves of the season catalyzing offense from the left wing last Sunday. The Monarchs did well to slow Cooper, Pluck and Boade from working through their middle, but didn’t have enough to still keep away high crossers.
Graham took her turn working around the defense against Memphis, creating several dangerous offensive possessions down the right wing as the Tigers were focused on Duke’s middle attack. That’s not necessarily what led to her game-winning score—more of a defensive breakdown than anything—but it was crucial to the Blue Devils both holding the vast majority of possession, and being truly dangerous with it.
“Memphis dropped, and there's no space—as you've seen the last two games, there has been very little space in behind any of these teams,” said Church. “And it's hard to be able to play through. I thought we had some really good combinations—we played well into Michelle's feet, and we played off of Michelle. I thought we started off the second half really, really well.”
Now, just because Duke had success against the unranked champions of Conference USA and the AAC, doesn’t mean it’ll translate into a possible Elite Eight matchup with defending champion Santa Clara or College Cup reunion with Virginia. But it does mean that when it next takes the field, against St. John’s Sunday in the Sweet Sixteen, that it’s that much closer to a national championship.