Does Duke have what it takes to beat the best?
The undefeated 15th-ranked Blue Devils will compete against No. 1 South Carolina Wednesday night, and with the bench depth and firepower of this year's roster, it doesn’t seem like they are ready to tally a loss anytime soon. Yet, Duke has a significant competition coming up—perhaps the most challenging game they will play this entire season—so the question remains: Can the Blue Devils hold up with a team this good?
Here are five things to watch out for when Duke takes on the Gamecocks.
South Carolina has reigned at the No. 1 spot from the preseason forward, moving up five places from its final No. 6 rank last season. The Gamecocks returned all of their starting five from last year’s team that ended its season in the Final Four, and added three of this year’s top-5 ranked players.
The new gems added to Hall of Fame head coach Dawn Stanley’s already intense collection include No. 2 Raven Johnson, No. 3 Saniyah Rivers, No. 4 Sania Feagin and No. 14 Aubryanna Hall. Along with Syracuse transfer Kamilla Cardoso, who herself was the No. 5 recruit in the 2020 class, this team’s roster seems virtually unstoppable. Considering that these additions to the team are only the frosting on top of Stanley’s already impressive squad, Duke needs to have some tricks in its back pocket to pull off the upset.
Goodbye win streak
No one knows for sure what will happen on the hardwood come Wednesday. Duke can continue its hot start or South Carolina can live up to its daunting reputation and play a menacing game from start to finish. Despite the different outcomes, one thing is for sure—one of these teams will not be undefeated after Wednesday.
The Blue Devils have an 8-0 record after their last win Dec. 5 against Penn, have scored over 70 points in eight straight games and defeated a top-10 team in No. 9 Iowa. The Gamecocks have an even more remarkable 10-0 record, with four top-10 wins under their belt, including a triumph against then-No. 8 Maryland Sunday afternoon.
Both teams have strutted their most impressive stuff, but with Duke moving up the rankings this week, neither group can stop just now. If South Carolina wants to remain at the top, this match against Duke can be no off-day for the team. The Blue Devil faithful know what this Duke squad can do against a team not playing their A-game, and with only a three-day break after its seven-point victory against Maryland, this game can go either way.
While Duke has Celeste Taylor and Lexi Gordon, South Carolina has Zia Cooke and Aaliyah Boston. Those two aren’t the only players who pose a threat from the Gamecock roster, but their power together on the court is unmatched. The two starters came to South Carolina as part of the 2019 recruiting class, with Boston checking in at No. 3 and Cooke at No. 4, and the two oscillate between who scores the most points for the team in each match.
With Cooke and Boston on the hardwood Wednesday, Duke will not only need to play its best defensive game yet, but will also have to play well offensively because South Carolina will undoubtedly keep adding points to the scoreboard. Both players can shoot from anywhere on the court, so ensuring no open shots will be the Blue Devils’ best chance at preventing a Gamecock takeover.
Precision is key
As an undefeated team, it's evident that South Carolina plays incredible offense. With Duke's defensive track record thus far, the team certainly has what it takes to remain competitive. However, holding its own against the Gamecocks means that the Blue Devils must play the match with great precision to detail on both sides of the ball.
Players like Jade Williams, Elizabeth Balogun and Taylor will need to grab extra rebounds. The Gamecocks have played two more games than Duke, but the team still leads the Blue Devils immensely in the number of blocks they have garnered at 92 to Duke's 45. The Blue Devils will need to amass as many rebounds as possible to make up for that advantage, as well as play tough defense of their own. South Carolina leads the Blue Devils in nearly 100 more points accumulated thus far and players like Cooke and Destanni Henderson are severe threats at the free throw line. If Duke can keep them away from the charity stripe, it should be in good shape, at least from a strategic standpoint, for an upset.
Playing the game
Though Duke is playing the top team in the nation in this competition, nothing is changing in terms of the group's mentality. It's clear that the team was not afraid of lofty rankings heading into its clash with Iowa, and this match will be no different.
"We'll take this week, and we'll practice, and we'll work on ourselves," head coach Kara Lawson said at the Penn postgame media conference. "That's really the plan—get better, get more effective and be more solid in our execution is what we really need."
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Ana Young is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle’s 118th volume.