Five things for No. 16 Duke women's basketball's first Tobacco Road battle at No. 4 N.C. State

Will Shayeann Day-Wilson lead the Blue Devils to a win over their in-state rivals?
Will Shayeann Day-Wilson lead the Blue Devils to a win over their in-state rivals?

Amid frigid air and snowy grounds, Kara Lawson will finally get her first Tobacco Road rivalry game.

No. 16 Duke travels to Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, N.C. Sunday afternoon for a nationally televised matchup with No. 4 N.C. State. The Blue Devils enter fresh off a second-half collapse against Virginia Tech without starters Celeste Taylor and Lexi Gordon, while the Wolfpack waltzed to a win over Virginia in which they led by 20 after three quarters. Her Hoop Stats projects N.C. State to win by 15.0 points, with an 88.7% chance of victory.

Duke comes in at 11-3 (2-2 in the ACC), with wins over then-No. 9 Iowa and then-No. 17 Notre Dame and losses to No. 1 South Carolina and Virginia Tech (twice). The Blue Devils have played teams that have been ranked or received votes this season to an average margin of -5.0 points.

N.C. State is 15-2 on the season (6-0 in the ACC), with wins over five teams that have been ranked or received votes this season, including then-No. 2 Maryland and then-No. 6 Indiana, and losses only to No. 1 South Carolina and No. 17 Georgia in overtime. N.C. State has averaged a margin of +13.0 points in those seven games. 

Here are five things to watch out for Sunday afternoon.

Center of attention

In four of Duke’s past five games against Power 5 opponents, the opponents’ leading scorer has been its center. (In two of those four, the game’s leading scorer was the opposing center.) The lone exception was Syracuse, a team playing undersized with a true power forward at its five-spot.

Thankfully, N.C. State’s starting center is only Elissa Cunane, a two-time All-American and the preseason ACC Player of the Year. If you didn't notice, that was sarcasm.

Cunane doesn’t have a versatile post game and three like South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston or the flexibility and midrange touch of Virginia Tech’s Elizabeth Kitley, but she does have the size and strength and length like Notre Dame’s Maya Dodson that the Blue Devils can’t come close to matching. Baseline traps and funneling the ball to the Wolfpack guards and wings will be necessary to prevent Kitley from simply banging it down low over any Duke players sent at her.

But to focus that much attention on Cunane would open the Blue Devils up to some familiar problems...

Knockdown, kick-out, shooters

Virginia Tech sunk Duke on Thursday with late kick-out threes when the Blue Devils suffocated Kitley. A team full of shooting threats, the Hokies' backcourt rotation shot a very good collective 43.2% on unguarded catch-and-shoot opportunities entering the season.

The Wolfpack aren’t quite the pure shooting threats that Virginia Tech was. But unfortunately for Duke, N.C. State’s primary spot-up shooters have a career catch-and-shoot field-goal percentage of 39.3%, ranking around the 70th percentile, per Synergy. If the Blue Devils haven't fixed that concern, it might once again rain indoors.

Star newcomers

The one-on-one matchup that should highlight the day comes between the two teams’ backup point guards: The Blue Devils' Shayeann Day-Wilson and the Wolfpack's Diamond Johnson.

The big wing battle between Duke’s Elizabeth Balogun and N.C. State’s Kayla Jones should deliver on both ends as well, but Day-Wilson vs. Johnson could be fireworks. Both stand near 5-foot-6, are dynamic pick-and-roll leaders, and can pull up from the logo. Among conference newcomers, Johnson (Rutgers transfer) and Day-Wilson (freshman) rank first and second respectively in points-per-40 minutes, per Her Hoop Stats (minimum 150 minutes).

Point of attack

One of N.C. State’s strengths over the past couple years has been its defense, ranking in the 77th percentile in 2020-21 and the 90th percentile in 2019-20, per CBB Analytics. What the Wolfpack have used to power that prowess is truly excellent point-of-attack defense. Off-ball guard Kai Crutchfield gets the praise for defending their opponents’ best backcourt threat, but point guard Raina Perez, Jones and, to an extent, wing Jakia Brown-Turner are all very good perimeter collegiate defenders. For ball-handlers, that means the hardest job is getting past their defender in the first place; only then are they greeted by the 6-foot-5 frame of Cunane.

Duke’s point-of-attack offense has been a relatively weak spot all season. Day-Wilson gets past the level of the screen expertly, but combo guard Celeste Taylor was the team’s other major downhill threat. Elizabeth Balogun knows how to make a lane and squeeze an advantage of whatever the defense gives her, and point guard Vanessa de Jesus excels at using ball screens to create space and scoring opportunities. However, both have serious limitations, with Balogun not being much of a playmaker and de Jesus struggling to score when the openings she creates are for herself.

Beyond those four, the Blue Devils’ non-centers include combo guard Miela Goodchild, who is not a downhill threat, as well as off-ball guard Lee Volker and combo forward Lexi Gordon, both non-handlers and the latter unlikely to go after being in health and safety protocols just three days ago.

The 400 club

N.C. State and Duke each reached 400 program ACC wins last week, becoming the first teams to do so in the conference’s history. North Carolina is currently third with 386; no other team projects to reach the quadricentennial mark within the next few seasons.

With the Wolfpack sitting at 403 wins and the Blue Devils at an even 400, Duke needs a win tomorrow if it wants to reclaim its spot atop the conference victory total this season.


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