RALEIGH—A winter storm was forecasted across the mid-Atlantic, causing the University to activate severe weather and emergency conditions. What wasn’t forecasted, though, was it raining indoors in Raleigh.
The 16th-ranked Blue Devils fell 84-60 to No. 4 N.C. State on the road Sunday, falling behind early and trailing by around 20 points for most of the final three quarters. Point guard Shayeann Day-Wilson and combo guard Miela Goodchild continued to be strong playmakers on both ends, but Duke was otherwise outclassed in nearly every aspect of the game. The Blue Devils lost the rebounding battle by 10, including only five offensive boards, and were a -13 in turnover margin. The Wolfpacks shot 46.6% overall and 46.7% from deep.
Day-Wilson led the team with 14 points on 6-of-14 from the field and 2-of-8 from three with four rebounds and four assists against six turnovers; Goodchild added 12 points on 4-of-8 from three with two assists against four turnovers. Wolfpack center and preseason ACC Player of the Year Elissa Cunane scored a game-high 23 points on 9-of-17 shooting with six rebounds in only 23 minutes.
“I honestly just thought early, it was the turnovers that really put us on our heels; it felt like [N.C. State was] playing transition offense the whole first half,” said Duke head coach Kara Lawson. “I thought that hurt us more than anything, because the pace of the game for a team is a lot of times dictated by what they do defensively. And so the fact they were getting turnovers really ignited their offensive attack, and they got out and running and getting layups and open threes. You can always say, ‘if we made more shots…’ I don't think when you lose by 24, it's a ‘if we made more shots, we'd have won things.’ I think we got beat by a really good team today.”
The Blue Devils (11-4, 2-3 in the ACC) started the game about as poorly as they could’ve, opening down 6-0 and 14-4 before finishing the final three-and-a-half minutes of the quarter 5-5. That was the last time Duke would be within 10; the Wolfpack (16-2, 7-0) took off in the second quarter, punctuated by an 11-0 run ending just before the half. The Blue Devils trailed 42-22 at the half, their largest halftime deficit of the season.
There wasn’t any one problem punctuating the first half for Duke; rather, everything presented a challenge. The Blue Devils couldn’t buy an open bucket, shooting sub-30% while getting turned away at the rim and unable to spring off-ball shooters loose. On the other end, while they limited Elissa Cunane to 4-of-9 from the field, they continually helped off of strong shooters, allowing open threes or drive-and-kicks that resulted in easy opportunities. Even when Duke was able to slow the ball down, the Wolfpack were able to get points nearly every time they ran a pick-and-roll (PnR)—the Blue Devils just couldn’t get over screens and had no rim protection to speak of.
Duke has previously been able to overcome similar problems against top-tier opponents this year. But that was earlier in the season, when many teams were still rediscovering their fit. And the Blue Devils haven’t appeared to find a great deal of cohesion yet.
This is a problem separate from that of veteran chemistry. It’s a question of how well teammate’s skills can play off each other, and Duke has gone a good month without seeming to know the answer.
Toward the beginning of the third quarter, Duke briefly made the gap manageable. Goodchild ran along the arc towards the right corner, as Day-Wilson ran a high PnR, drove right and kicked it to open a swing to her. Goodchild was open thanks to a teammate’s baseline cut to clear the corner, and she hit the catch-and-shoot three falling to her right. Each Blue Devil played that to their skills—a playmaker play-made, a cutter cut and a shooter shot.
N.C. State responded within the flow of its offense. Duke’s next possession set up a Korver screen in the corner for Goodchild to come off of. Except that action requires two shooting threats to work, and with Goodchild the only shooter there, she got the ball with a contested look; she missed the three. The Wolfpack came down the court, got a two-player action in the corner while their shooter spaced and read their cutting keys. It resulted in the Blue Devils getting caught in the corner, unsure how best to play an empty-side ball-screen, allowing Cunane to go downhill on a recovering big. Two easy points for N.C. State, and its lead was back to 20.
“You definitely know who to ask for what—just who's gonna do what, and you know other people's games,” Cunane said about the Wolfpack’s chemistry. “And you know who can shoot the ball, who's gonna drive the ball when you pass it out to them. And you got a little telepathy.”
“It is easier—it's almost like having five assistant coaches out there on the court that kind of know what you own and how you want to do it,” said N.C. State head coach Wes Moore. “It’s great having all that experience out there.”
Throughout the game, that would keep happening: Duke would string together a couple possessions where the on-court players’ skills would mesh, then run into a series of situations where they wouldn’t. Be it the lack of sound help defense combined with a lack of post strength, or ball-handlers without coordinated rolling or cutting, it was a mismatch. Jade Williams, a high-post big, had to play physical down low with Cunane; Day-Wilson, a shifty PnR leader, had to create every opening; Goodchild, a 3-and-D combo guard, had to be the team’s secondary creator and top point-of-attack defender.
Duke was at least able to threaten a little in the fourth and force Cunane to check back in, but the game was never in doubt. When the buzzer sounded, it was Duke’s worst loss of the season, and the program fell below .500 in ACC play after multiple games for just the first time in two calendar years.
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