Sunday night’s matchup between No. 21 Duke and 3-13 Virginia was Duke’s game to lose, and it sure cut it close.
Armed with one of the best freshmen in the country in Shayeann Day-Wilson and facing a Cavalier squad on a six-game losing streak, the Blue Devils entered Sunday night’s contest heavily favored against the Cavaliers in what looked to be an all-but-certain conference win. Early shooting woes and defensive lapses due to key absences threatened Duke’s lead late in the contest, but head coach Kara Lawson’s deliberately slow place and dribble handoff offense proved too much for the Cavaliers to handle as Duke cruised to a nine-point victory.
Prior to conference play, the Blue Devils were used to putting up points in bunches. They scored at least 70 points in their first eight games, but since ACC play started, Duke’s offense has been sporadic at best. When 11.7-points-per-game scorer Celeste Taylor went down against Syracuse Jan. 9, they lost a significant portion of their production in the process and it doesn’t help that arguably the team’s best shooter, Miela Goodchild, missed the Virginia game due to health and safety protocols.
Without two integral teammates, the Blue Devils struggled shooting-wise, missing seven straight threes to start the contest and finishing with a poor 3-of-14 shooting performance from beyond the arc. The offense lacked its usual firepower and Lawson recognized that during the game and adjusted to her shortlist of personnel.
“We weren't getting a lot out of the ball screen stuff. So we figured maybe we changed it up to the DHOs and see what we can get,” said Lawson.
After failing to score in over five minutes during the third quarter, the Duke guards seemed to wake up with the adjustment. Day-Wilson was able to come off of the DHOs and create space from her defenders in the midrange while the defenders rotated, tallying a team-high 13 points while wreaking havoc in the Virginia bigs’ confusion. Vanessa de Jesus also capitalized on her second-half paint opportunities, including five trips to the line, sinking seven of her team-high 10 free-throw attempts.
“The DHOs has are a big part of our offense. And we felt like getting the ball into our guards' hands off of those action actions could maybe create something that could maybe loosen up something,” said Lawson.
Even with the adjustments made and 3-point shots starting to fall late in the third quarter, Duke would allow Virginia to go on a tear in the fourth quarter, scoring 19 points in the period and restricting Duke’s offense to just 11. At one point, the Cavaliers put together a 12-2 run and Kaydon Lawson sank a layup to reduce the deficit to just five points with 2:33 left to play. The Cavaliers had Duke’s number late, but more coaching adjustments would help neutralize the late full-court press defense and end the game on Duke’s terms.
“With our struggles that we had offensively, I was trying to shorten the game. And so the last four minutes I was trying to milk it to the end so if nothing else, even if we missed a shot, or had a turnover, it happened with less time on the clock because we were on 50 there for a while, and just couldn't score.”
A coach doesn’t have a lot of options when the team is struggling to make open shots, but because of an early lead, Duke essentially opted to methodically run out the clock. It's unclear if Duke will be without Goodchild and Taylor for another game, but when they return, Duke will likely be able to generate more layups for the bigs off of traditional ball screens and make open threes at a higher rate. Two key players missing could’ve rained on the Blue Devils’ parade Sunday night, but the tactical changes by Lawson allowed the team to secure an ugly, but necessary win.
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