Irrespective of which shade of blue you were wearing on Thursday, we can all agree that it was great to see Duke square off against historic rival North Carolina for the first time since March 2020. We can also all agree that the Blue Devils were comprehensively outplayed in their 78-62 loss, largely down to the most quintessential “shoot yourself in the foot” error: turnovers.
In a game that, prior to tipoff, seemed poised to be a nail-biter, it was the noisy neighbors that ruined the party at Cameron Indoor Stadium and deservedly so. North Carolina hounded any attempt by Duke to find even the slightest sniff of offensive momentum, taking the ball 18 times, including 11 steals, and racking up 27 points off the turnovers.
Turning the ball over is, perhaps obviously, the most surefire way to give your opponents dangerous offensive positions since they often happen when defensive shape isn’t established and the majority of players are hugging the paint and looking to score. Steals led to fast breaks, fast breaks led to points and Duke found itself down 21 at the half. Had it eliminated North Carolina’s points off turnovers (18), that deficit would’ve been a very manageable three, a deficit it would’ve made up in the second half considering it outscored its opponents 36-31.
“It's a physical game and we're trying to play it really fast,” said North Carolina head coach Courtney Banghart. “They're in the training room, they're in the weight room, they're doing mobility every day with our sport performance team.… I think it's also their competitiveness, but we want to play fast. We want kids that want to play fast and do it. That's what we got.”
Though Duke surrendered only seven turnovers in the second half to the 11 it gave up in the first half, the damage was already done. When facing a team as talented and fierce as North Carolina—in a rivalry game, no less—mistakes become opportunities. Unfortunately for the Blue Devils, as impressive as they’ve been this season, they made too many turnovers (mistakes) and allowed too many buckets on the counter (opportunities).
“North Carolina is a really good transition team,” said Duke guard Vanessa de Jesus. “They just played really well today, getting the passing in and just putting pressure on us.”
“When you turn the ball over, it's very hard to set the defense,” added Duke assistant coach Winston Gandy, who stood in for head coach Kara Lawson Thursday amid her absence due to health and safety protocols. “We did a good job when we were able to play in the half court. But you know, the live ball turnovers will get you every day of the week.”
Even if the turnover battle was lost Thursday and with it a chance of a clean sweep over North Carolina, Duke should take notice of the immense shift its players put in regardless. It would’ve been easy for this game to be a blowout, but it wasn’t, and credit must be given to the collective digging-in of heels from the Blue Devils, especially in the second half.
Even when the game was dead, buried and out of reach late in the fourth quarter, Miela Goodchild knocked down three consecutive triples and a couple of layups. Elizabeth Balogun dominated quarter one with seven points and three rebounds and Shayeann Day-Wilson tried her best to pester the Tar Heel defense with a series of drives, layups and pull-up jumpers in the second half. The Blue Devils were spirited and energetic even when winning was highly improbable, and that should be applauded.
“Credit to the individuals in the locker room for not tapping out,…trying to string together solid possessions, regardless of who was on the floor, and I thought they did a good job of that,” said Gandy. “When you get consecutive stops and you start all of a sudden to score, it gets a little bit easier and you get a little bit more juice, a little bit more life. I thought they did a really good job of not looking at the scoreboard.”
The turnovers knocked down Duke Thursday night, but they’re not a season death sentence. This team has fight, hunger and talent to match. In the coming games, and it'll be all too aware of this from tonight, it’s just a matter of keeping the ball to make that count.
“We faced a little bit of adversity early and I thought we adjusted well,” said Gandy. “If nothing else, we got a little continuity going. That hopefully builds a little bit of momentum.”
The Blue Devils next take on No. 5 Louisville away this Sunday at 3 p.m.
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Andrew Long is a Trinity sophomore and sports editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.