Victory, but at what cost?
It was a cagey affair at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y., as No. 17 Duke was forced to work to knock off a resilient Syracuse team 74-65. Head coach Kara Lawson’s Blue Devils have had a rocky start to conference play, falling handily to Virginia Tech before a narrow, last-minute win against then-No. 17 Notre Dame last week and two COVID postponements against Miami and Georgia Tech.
Though the win will no doubt be a boon to Duke’s ACC aspirations, Sunday’s trip saw superstar junior Celeste Taylor collapse to the floor midway through the second quarter after a rough collision over a loose ball, seemingly with extensive pain to her left shoulder, and exit the court in tears. The Texas transfer has been a phenomenon in Lawson’s team this season, averaging 12.2 points per game and impressing with her athleticism and playmaking.
“We’ve already dealt with multiple absences of players through the year and we’ll handle it the same way,” said Lawson. “We’ll see what happens with Celeste but I think our team’s understood, already having had absences, that the job is still to win the game no matter who’s available that night.”
Taylor, in the 15 minutes she played, registered six points, three rebounds and two assists. Blue Devil fans will be hopeful that Taylor’s injury isn’t anything too serious or long-lasting and that her absence won’t cause a dip in results.
Encouragingly, Sunday’s game was a holistically confident performance by the Blue Devils (11-2, 2-1 in the ACC) and Taylor’s untimely exit didn’t seem to derail Duke’s momentum. Freshman point guard Shayeann Day-Wilson, senior forward Onome Akinbode-James and senior guard Miela Goodchild impressed with 13, 16 and 13 points, respectively, commanding the court and helping to establish a healthy lead in the second and third quarters that extended to as large as 14 at one point.
Day-Wilson and Akinbode-James helped carry the scoring burden Taylor usually assumes, while Miela Goodchild continued her hot streak from beyond the arc with her four 3-pointers to bring her into the top-10 3-point shooters in program history. Goodchild in particular has been a standout performer in the last two conference games, notching 13 points against Notre Dame and adding valuable program experience to this transfer-heavy roster, while Akinbode-James put up her best numerical performance of the season and set a new career record in points.
“When you’re called on and given an opportunity, you’ve just got to keep working hard,” said Goodchild.
“Everybody’s going to get an opportunity to impact the team and impact the game,” added Lawson. “They’re accountable for their performance, they have to go in there and do what we need them to do to help us win.”
That’s not to say it was a flawless performance. Lawson will be hoping for more clinical shooting and better ball security, as Duke’s 45% mark from the field and 14 turnovers made the game more competitive than the Blue Devils would have liked.
“We did have a poor stretch,” said Lawson. “We were quick-shot.”
Ultimately, though, Duke showed on Sunday that despite adversity and the loss of a crucial cog in its machine in Taylor, it can win and other players can step up when it's asked of them. Week after week the depth of Lawson’s squad shows, and utilizing this depth will be paramount in making Taylor’s yet-undetermined period on the sidelines more of a hiccup than a hurdle.
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Sunday’s foray to Syracuse (8-7, 1-4) may have seen an unfortunate roadblock in Taylor’s injury, but equally it may have illuminated a necessary silver lining for Duke. There are plenty of game-changers in Lawson’s talented roster that can, and did, drag their team to victory. This pull-up-by-the-bootstraps mentality will be crucial in avenging the season’s earlier 77-55 loss to Virginia Tech before the Hokies make the trip down to Durham Jan. 13.
“They are very resilient,” said Lawson. “They believe they can find a way, believe they can figure out a way even if it’s not going their way in the beginning. It might be the thing I love the most about my team: they keep fighting.”