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For Duke women’s basketball, unfamiliarity a liability in loss to Virginia Tech

Freshman Shayeann Day-Wilson struggled from the field against Virginia Tech, going 2-of-13.
Freshman Shayeann Day-Wilson struggled from the field against Virginia Tech, going 2-of-13.

The ACC is made of veteran teams with years of established chemistry. For Duke, being an exception is only an impediment.

The 16th-ranked Blue Devils lost 65-54 to Virginia Tech Thursday, blowing a halftime lead to lose the second half by 18 points. Duke was able to stake itself to that lead behind a suffocating first-half defense that held the Hokies’ 94th-percentile offense to just 25 points. This came despite the absence of the team’s secondary playmaker and primary point-of-attack defender, Celeste Taylor (unspecified left arm/shoulder injury), and primary floor-spacer, Lexi Gordon (health and safety protocols). The Blue Devils were able to execute their halfcourt defensive plan and turn defensive playmaking into offensive production through 20 minutes.

When Virginia Tech adjusted out of halftime, though, Duke couldn’t counter.

“This is the level of growth that I'm watching in these kids,” said Hokie head coach Kenny Brooks. “I think we hit one of those shots, and [center Elizabeth Kitley] came to me during one of the timeouts and she said, ‘Can we run the play?’ Ironically, the play is called ‘Raven,’ that is named after her sister. And she said, ‘Because when I get the basketball here, when I take a dribble,’ — and this is the level of maturity that she's gaining — ‘when I take a dribble, they're coming, they're doubling down. And then I can hit [combo guard Aisha Sheppard] for an open shot.’ And I thought that was phenomenal, because I talked to her earlier today, and I said, ‘Look, communicate with me, tell me what you see, what you feel, how they're doubling you and whatnot.’ And she was able to come to me and tell me that.”

Virginia Tech is a veteran squad, but so is Duke. The Hokies, however, have veteran chemistry the Blue Devils don’t: 70.7% of the minutes of Virginia Tech’s core rotation are coming from members of its 2020-21 roster; Duke features just 35.2%.

That matters. Kitley can suggest an adjustment to Brooks to counter the Blue Devils; doubles because she’s played with Sheppard long enough to know what they can pull off. Sheppard knows how to rotate around Kitley’s post touches and how to use her ball screens. Point guard Georgia Amoore can drive and probe with confidence because she knows where her teammates are going to be for last-second kick-outs.

Duke doesn’t have that luxury. When point guard Shayeann Day-Wilson gets downhill on a pick-and-roll (PnR), she’s unable to be sure of whether a teammate is in the spot she wants to kick out to—a big part of her 25.7% turnover rate. When the Blue Devils run an empty-side PnR, the perimeter shakes and baseline cuts and roll angles just aren’t as crisp as they need to be. Hedges and paint help on defense aren’t coming in a way that prevents easy drives and looks at the rim.

“This group is new together. It's not an excuse for why we lost the game, but we got nine new players. We've got some freshmen that are playing only their third ACC game,” said Duke head coach Kara Lawson. “There's obviously a lot of continuity there on that other side, in terms of, those kids having played together. We'll just keep working, and try to execute better…

“I thought we resorted to too much one-on-one late, and we needed to do what we were doing for the first three quarters, which is just play together and look to get good shots. We'll work on it. It happens. It's something that we've got to continue to grow. ”

Most egregiously, with the game separated by two points in the fourth quarter, Lawson signaled a four and horns, and it went unexecuted. Watch her body language here after signaling the ball should go to the top of the screen. Then re-watch and see center Onome Akinbode-James’ confusion as she has to improvise a high side PnR that leads to an Elizabeth Balogun drive into three bodies.

Losing to a rival who’s receiving votes in the poll, after leading at halftime despite missing two highly impactful starters, is nothing to be distraught over; missing Taylor and Gordon is especially impactful in forcing lineups that haven't played two minutes yet. And lineup chemistry is a skill that takes time to develop, with the tournaments still two months away.

For now, however, the Blue Devils are still feeling their growing pains. And with No. 4 N.C. State, No. 21 North Carolina, and No. 3 Louisville all on deck over the next two weeks, things aren’t lightening up for the foreseeable future.

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