The Blue Devils’ most difficult matchup until now is here.
After registering a stellar first leg to its season, Duke will take on its first ranked opponent, No. 9 Iowa, Thursday night in Cameron Indoor Stadium as part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. The Blue Devils have a 6-0 record heading into their competition with the Hawkeyes, after recording big wins against all of their opponents except for Alabama—which they beat in a down-to-the-wire nail-biter.
Though Duke reigns undefeated as of now, its contest with Iowa will be the test that shows whether this squad has what it takes to make it to the top. The Hawkeyes don’t have any particularly notable wins thus far, but Duke may be their first real contender.
Here are five things to watch out for in Duke’s competition with Iowa.
Any fan following the Blue Devils this season knows about Shayeann Day-Wilson by now. Through her play-making abilities, defensive aptitude and skills as an offensive threat, the freshman guard has been an integral part of each team’s victories. The place where Day-Wilson shines the most is undoubtedly her prowess at the 3-point mark. Duke’s last match against Troy saw the freshman play her best game yet—registering a career-high 26 points, of which 24 were from her 8-of-10 made 3-pointers.
Day-Wilson isn’t the only Blue Devil who can hit threes. Junior Celeste Taylor added three against Troy, and graduate student Lexi Gordon went 4-of-5 Sunday against Appalachian State. But, Day-Wilson’s most recent performance is proof of the freshman’s improvement at the mark and her ability to help the team when needed. Striking 3-pointers Thursday will be crucial because Iowa is a primarily offensive-based team and will try to get big numbers on the scoreboard from the get-go. For Duke to remain competitive in this contest, it should worry the most about how many treys it can drain.
What makes Iowa so good in the eyes of college basketball analysts is its starting five. None of the squad graduated or transferred after last season, so they still have the same tenacity, or arguably, even more; as well as likely more potent chemistry to work with than most teams.
The group features nine returners, including the No. 4 player from the 2020 recruiting class Caitlin Clark, senior Monika Czinano and junior McKenna Warnock. The three player’s track records include three-time gold medalist status, the No. 2 player in field goals made last season and the team leader in rebounds, respectively. While Duke has players as competitive as Iowa’s starting five, many of them are new to the program. Playing against a veteran squad such as the Hawkeyes will likely be a challenge for Duke. However, through their six successful matches, the Blue Devils have shown that there is already a lot of trust among this roster. As long as they continue to prove that, competing against a team with as much chemistry as Iowa should be no issue.
‘Following the game plan’
Duke has no job other than executing its best game. And that’s what the team will have to do on the hardwood against the Hawkeyes. The matchup will be difficult, but it’s not the first time that players on this roster have faced a team with top-ranked athletes and pulled out a win. Alabama’s Megan Abrams scored 27 points in its loss against the Blue Devils. Appalachian State’s Michaela Porter and Janay Sanders combined for 38 points in their defeat. Even in Duke’s most recent victory, Troy’s Felmas Koranga added 24 points to the score.
“They’re definitely a great team, and they have great players on the team as well,” Taylor said about the Hawkeyes. “...I’m just looking forward to following the game plan and what our coaches tell us to do, just really diving into the personnel of the team.”
A stand-out place for the Blue Devils this game will be head coach Kara Lawson’s continuous emphasis on defense. Duke has worked hard and long to ensure that its roster can hold up on both the offensive and defensive ends, and having defeated the majority of its opponents in blowouts, it’s evident that the team can do that. A match against Iowa will require even more mastery. The Hawkeyes are going to come in and give Duke everything they’ve got. A quick look at Iowa’s stats for its four games this season shows that the team is good at switching up its play after figuring out how its opponents compete. Its most recent match against Southern University, when the Hawkeyes dominated through their 33-of-38 made free-throws, is just one example of this squad’s versatility.
Along with this, the team averages 42.25 rebounds per game to keep the ball within their possession. Playing Iowa’s game will likely be difficult for Duke given that the team is ranked No. 9 for fewest fouls, and No. 3 for field goal percentage, at 50.63%. For the Blue Devils to rise above, they must put the more significant part of their effort into their defensive play. If they do this, then the ball is in their court to ensure that this offensive powerhouse doesn’t even get the chance to put up similar numbers than what they’ve been registering lately.
Moment of truth
Whatever the outcome is Thursday night, this match will change the trajectory of the Blue Devils’ season. If Duke wins, it may finally see an appearance within the top-25 rankings. If the Blue Devils lose, they will know how zealous they are against a top-ranked team. Either way, this game will tell analysts everything they need to know about how nationally competitive this roster is.
Having won all of their games this season, the Blue Devils are a contender for taking the victory—at least on a surface level. This contest is the Hawkeyes’ first match since Nov. 17, as they took a break from competition due to positive COVID-19 tests within their program. Coming off three wins since Iowa last played against another team, the Blue Devils are warmed up and as ready as they can be at this point in the season. The showdown that occurs between the two will just tell everyone exactly what they’ve been waiting to hear.
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Ana Young is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle’s 118th volume.