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Duke women's basketball escapes Penn's zone defense to keep perfect record

Celeste Taylor once again put together an impressive all-around performance to guide the Blue Devils to victory against Penn.
Celeste Taylor once again put together an impressive all-around performance to guide the Blue Devils to victory against Penn.

PHILADELPHIA—Coming off a landmark upset against No. 9 Iowa, you’d be tempted to think the Blue Devils would have a “big-win hangover.” But Sunday, Penn was the one quaking in its boots.

Duke beat the Quakers 77-55 at The Palestra, a game in which they pulled away early, only to struggle mightily in the middle part of the game, before widening the lead again in the late third and early fourth quarters. Penn’s zone defense proved a tough challenge for the Blue Devils, who often needed most of the shot clock just to get off a contested look. 

Point guard Shayeann Day-Wilson led Duke (8-0) with 14 points on 5-for-8 from the field and 4-for-6 from three and three assists against three turnovers; big wing Elizabeth Balogun scored a season-high 13 points on 5-for-8 shooting with four rebounds, two assists and two steals; and off-ball guard Celeste Taylor had eight points, nine rebounds, two assists, two steals and a block.

The Blue Devils had faced spurts of zone defense before—Winthrop and Appalachian State both used it as a change-up against them, to little success because of the talent differential. Alabama used it in the second half to close a big deficit as Duke struggled with it. And Iowa used it in the fourth quarter as a bit of a Hail Mary, though the game was already over at that point.

Penn (4-5), however, uses zone defense extensively. And despite the Blue Devils scoring 77 points, on an objectively good 49.2% from the field and 33.3% from three, their offense just wasn’t the same as it was Thursday against the Hawkeyes. The ball often stuck at the corners and possessions ended in contended jumpers or tough layups.

 “We actually practice a lot of zone in practice, so we kind of expected that,” said Balogun. “So we did a lot of practice and prepared for that, and we just have to adjust and try to find a way to score.”

The late first and early second quarters were when Duke finally found some way through the zone. Balogun and Lexi Gordon moved away from relocating along the arc and instead flashed more inside, while the off-ball guards hit back cuts and crashed glass. That led to a 30-12 run between 4:30 in the first and 2:49 in the second.

The Quakers clamped down from that point onwards, though, with traps at the wing and corner choking out Duke’s ball movement. The side pick-and-rolls that create so much offense for the Blue Devils couldn’t function, and Princeton concepts that underpin many of its sets couldn’t provide the same juice, leading to a 20-8 Penn run through the mid-third quarter.

“We've seen a lot of zones through the season, and we work quite a bit on it. And the more we see it, I think the more comfortable you get against it,” said Duke head coach Kara Lawson. “But we did have some possessions where I felt like the ball was sticking, and then we weren't getting a penetrating pass or penetrating drive, and we were just kind of like passing around the perimeter. We got to try to get the ball in the paint against a zone. There was a stretch where, when they made their run, I thought we had some poorer possessions.”

At least as concerning as scoring only eight points, over the length of a quarter, against an Ivy League team, was allowing 20 points in that span to a particularly mediocre Ivy League team. The Quakers came into Sunday with an offensive rating in the 61st percentile, despite one of the easier schedules in the nation so far, per Her Hoop Stats. But the Blue Devils struggled to communicate on paint switches and put themselves in rotation via overhelping, giving Penn easier baskets.

Rim protection in particular was a Penn target. Whether it was UCLA sets (which consist of getting guards downhill with off-ball screens) or just pulling their bigs away from the paint, the Quakers were able to get Duke’s centers away from the rim. They took advantage of the Blue Devil backcourt defenders there time and time again, despite often having size disadvantages. And it didn’t help matters that those defenders often got stuck upcourt on ball screens.

 “I thought if we would have played in front of them the entire time—which we did the first quarter—I think we were going to struggle to score,” said Penn head coach Mike McLaughlin. “We started getting under them, we started taking the ball to the basket, we started to play a little bit more in the paint. I thought that's where we had our best advantage.”

Much like its Thursday game against Iowa, Duke opened against the Quakers in rough fashion, missing two shots and committing two turnovers before scoring its first points over two minutes in. But by hook or by crook, the Blue Devils were going to go ahead. After a couple Jade Williams jumpers helped jump-start Duke’s offense, the team led 8-3 after six minutes; by the end of the quarter, the Blue Devils led 22-5.

And many of the team’s bright spots from recent games remain just as bright. Day-Wilson continued to rain hellfire from deep, hitting four step-back threes. Off-ball guard Lee Volker provided solid minutes at the three, providing size on defense and interior handling on offense. Taylor and point guard Vanessa de Jesus remain high-level decision-makers with the ball in their hands.

But the array of weak points that Penn was able to expose are now on tape. They’ll be there against N.C. State’s rim pressure, and they’ll be there against Notre Dame’s hybrid 3-2 zone, and they’ll be there against Virginia Tech’s diverse screening sets. The Blue Devils showed they have the ability to correct those problems. The question now is how quickly that will take.

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