CLEMSON, S.C.—When a team shoots outshoots its opposition 47% to 37% and dominates the interior 36 paint points to 22, one may expect the result to be a comfortable, lopsided victory. However, the reality Sunday afternoon in Clemson for the Blue Devil’s was a far more exhilarating crossing of the finish line. Up nine, with two minutes remaining in the game, the hare relaxed early and began snoozing. Fortunately for Duke, in this instance, they woke up in time to stop the tortoise from completing a demoralizing comeback and stunning upset.
So, there must be more to the story if such a dominating performance at first glance netted a mere 64-61 win at Littlejohn Coliseum. These additional variables come in the form of turnovers. From shot-clock violations to interceptions to loose-ball recoveries, Clemson found every way possible to make the game as suffocating as possible for the Blue Devils. Duke finished the game with 20 turnovers and Clemson scored 16 points off them.
“We knew that this was a team that was going to pressure us and force us to turn it over,” head coach Kara Lawson commented regarding the turnovers. “At times the pressure overwhelmed us and they got off and running. We continue to work on our spacing and our awareness more than anything…when you see your teammate getting trapped, be aware that that’s happening and go to the opening and see if we can take advantage of that. We did get some layups on the backside of those traps, we executed well but it’s certainly something we need to keep getting better at.”
As daunting as the Tigers' aggressive and risky defense was, occasionally the risk did not pay off and Duke (16-10, 7-9 in the ACC) was able to capitalize off it. Trouble came when the ball would remain stagnant, but there were many instances when Duke showcased elite ball-movement and zipped it through Clemson’s defense. The catalyst this game was sophomore point guard Vanessa de Jesus, who tied her career-high of eight assists. Her needle-threading passes gave Duke easy opportunities at the rim. Her composure to facilitate amid the pressure was crucial for them.
“[Vanessa] might have played her best game of the year. How composed she was versus the pressure, traps, diagnosing out of the traps where the ball should go, finding shooters, I thought she was excellent,” Lawson said on de Jesus.
Beyond her high-level playmaking, de Jesus is what separated a devastating collapse from the mere “what if” it is now to actually being a reality. Lackadaisical defense, poor free-throw shooting, and ill-advised turnovers left Clemson (9-18, 3-12) down just two points with the ball at what seemed to be the last possession. However, de Jesus made the game-saving deflection and a clutch free-throw in the following moments to prevent disaster and in all likelihood save Duke’s season.
“We’ve been through a lot and we were trying to get a win,” said de Jesus post-game. “We just came out and knew that this was a very important game for us and we really wanted it. I think at the end of the day the effort and discipline we had we came showed it today”
De Jesus spoke on not just how much she wanted the win, but how significant it was for the entire team. That determination showed throughout the roster at the most important times. Lee Volker and Miela Goodchild also pitched in quality performances, defense and effort. Sunday was not a tale of the usual stars being the heroes, but rather, the rest of the players maximizing their roles and taking some load off them. Shayeann Day-Wilson and Celeste Taylor combined for just 19 points on 8-of-23 shooting from the field and 1-of-7 shooting from three. Fortunately, their teammates had their backs. Duke displayed tonight how much it can rely on their depth when necessary, as the bench outscored the starters with 34 total points. It was one of the team’s most balanced wins yet with five players making four or more field goals.
Duke’s basketball season is not over. The first and last quarter in particular represented how truly remarkable the Blue Devils can be when they are clicking on all cylinders. In those frames, they combined for 38 points on 56% shooting from the field and 71% from deep. It's clear how good they can be, and they have already had to overcome a ton of adversity. Now it is just a matter of if moving forward they want to lay down as the Duke of quarters two and three or rise as the Duke of quarters one and four.
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