Two years ago, the Blue Devils traveled to Columbia, S.C., where a Duke team that would finish third in the ACC lost by 43. Wednesday, the 15th-ranked Blue Devils hosted an even more talented South Carolina squad, and finished better than multiple top-10 teams.
Duke’s 55-46 loss at Cameron Indoor Stadium Wednesday was not the outcome the Blue Devil faithful wanted, but it’s clear that head coach Kara Lawson and her squad have started a new brand of Duke women’s basketball. The Blue Devils were a +5 from the late-first quarter on, but an early 17-0 Gamecock run put the contest out of reach. South Carolina rebounded 62.3% of its own misses in the first half, going into halftime with a 16-point lead, too much for a Duke comeback.
Point guard Shayeann Day-Wilson led the Blue Devils with 17 bench points on 6-for-14 from the field and 3-for-8 from deep, including a 24-foot pull-up and an and-one three in the fourth; wing Celeste Taylor notched nine points on 4-for-9 shooting (1-of-2 from three) with three rebounds and five steals. But those weren’t enough to overcome Gamecock center Aliyah Boston’s 19-point, 14-rebound, 6-block double-double.
“I thought all of our players that came in played with great effort. And that's what you hoped for in a game like this,” said head coach Kara Lawson. “And I love our group—they do that, they play with great effort. And I did think they competed. When you go down 16, and you only have 16 points at the half, there's a lot of teams that will come out of the locker room and think the game is over. And we didn't do that. We kept fighting. We pushed some runs at them. I think I was pleased with how we competed tonight.”
The Blue Devils (8-1) scored first, on a spot-up three from big wing Elizabeth Balogun, but surrendered the next 17 points to the Gamecocks. Duke might’ve been able to match their output, but combo forward Lexi Gordon, point guard Vanessa de Jesus and Day-Wilson combined to miss seven threes in the first quarter; three of Gordon’s shots and one each of de Jesus’ and Day-Wilson’s were uncontested.
The Blue Devils showed life in the opening of the second half, outscoring South Carolina 6-2 behind two Gordon threes, playing strong defense on the perimeter and preventing post entries. But over the next minute-and-a-half, they found a new opponent, one wearing black and white instead of black and red, namely when official Karen Preato tripped Gordon on what would’ve been a wide-open catch-and-shoot transition three.
Things started clicking for Duke after the Gamecocks’ consequential first-quarter explosion. Its zone defense, designed to front Boston, a preseason All-American, while keeping the Blue Devils’ center behind her—effectively doubling Boston without having to come too far off another Gamecock. The scheme had worked well from the get-go, but South Carolina (11-0) was killing Duke on the glass to the tune of a 55.6% offensive rebounding rate. The Gamecocks actually hurt the Blue Devils worse with offensive boards in the second quarter (70% ORB%), but with Duke forcing the ball away from the paint, those rebounds were longer, and South Carolina went from six first-quarter points on putbacks to none in the second.
That led to the Blue Devils forcing six second-quarter turnovers and holding the Gamecocks to 32 first-half points, their third-lowest output in any half since their season-opener.
“I figured they would play a little bit of zone, but I didn't think they would play the entire game, because they haven't really shown a whole lot of zone,” said South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley. “But we were aware, we knew that it was going to happen. And depending on how well we play out of it, is how long they'll play it. And they just stuck with it. We snuck and got a win. And sometimes you gotta get lucky, when it boils down [to] not playing your best basketball.”
Duke’s defensive accomplishment came in spite of its offense, which, despite finally finding the bottom of the hoop, still struggled mightily. The Blue Devils scored just 16 points in the first half, nearly half their prior low-water mark for a half. Duke was mostly unable to attack the rim—thanks to the presence of Boston—and off-ball guard Brea Beal and wing Zia Cooke proved tricky to shed on screens.
A large part of Duke’s offensive woes stemmed from the roster’s unfamiliarity. As Lawson noted in her pregame presser, South Carolina returned every minute and every point scored from its 2020-21 Final Four roster. Duke is operating with 67.9% of its minutes coming from players new to Durham. And the problem was exacerbated by the Blue Devils playing new lineups to combat the Gamecocks’ size: Several Duke possessions ended in missed cuts, or misplaced screens, or on one occasion a couple of players running into each other in the second quarter.
Miscues weren’t much less common on the defensive end. The Blue Devils had some trouble rotating off of interior help and back onto backside shooters, leading to a few open South Carolina catch-and-shoot threes. The Gamecocks made those late rotations more costly when they were able to attack closeouts on the baseline, though; once a late Duke closeout was beaten by driving baseline, South Carolina’s possession was generally past the Blue Devil interior double-team.
But despite its miscues, and despite its cold shooting to open, Duke finished with the second-closest margin any team has put up this season—better than then-No. 2 Connecticut and then-No. 9 Oregon.
“We talk a lot about growth in our program, and that we want our players to grow,” said Lawson. “And the way that you grow is to be challenged, and then you have to be open enough to see where you need to improve. And so the way we balance it is just continuing to challenge them. Recognizing when they do something well, recognizing when they play with great effort, and then encouraging them to continue to improve daily."
The Blue Devils open ACC play against Miami Sunday.
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