The last time N.C. State visited Cameron Indoor Stadium was Feb. 2020, when Duke was looking for a late-season statement win. It led late in the second half, but Elissa Cunane and the Wolfpack perimeter shooting downed the Blue Devils late.
Sunday, the first matchup at Cameron since, was the exact same story.
Duke fell to No. 3 N.C. State 77-62 Sunday, losing the seventh of its last 11 games and the second-straight game in which it led in the second half. The Blue Devils had their best game since their Jan. 2 win against Notre Dame, but ultimately fell short behind foul trouble and timely Wolfpack threes. Which is exactly how N.C. State won the teams’ last meeting at Cameron: a late push from Cunane opening up threes in the defense from Duke.
Combo forward Lexi Gordon led the Blue Devils with 13 points on a 4-of-11 clip from the field and 3-of-8 from three without a turnover; point guard Shayeann Day-Wilson had 12 points on 5-of-16 shooting, two rebounds, three assists and three steals against two turnovers. The Wolfpack were led by wing Jakia Brown-Turner’s 19 points on a 9-of-11 mark front the floor, three rebounds and three blocks; Cunane notched 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting from the field, four rebounds, two assists and three turnovers; combo forward Kayla Jones added a double-double.
“It's just discipline. And we're growing in that area; we're not there yet,” said Duke head coach Kara Lawson. “N.C. State's there, with great experience, great continuity, great talent. And we're growing in that area. And so we did have some breakdowns in the second half. It's one thing to have a breakdown, the other team has got to capitalize on it. And so to credit them, they did that; when they got openings, they fully took advantage and were able to score.”
Just as in the Wolfpacks’ last visit to Cameron, though, the Blue Devils refused to go down quietly. An opening presented itself when Onome Akinbode-Jones and Cunane's arms entangled on a box-out, the centers pulling each other to the ground. They both hit their heads and looked to be in serious pain (Cunane was moving but didn't get up for a solid minute). But while Akinbode-James remained on the court after a lengthy review, Cunane remained out for the last few minutes of the third quarter. Duke attacked the rim and were freer defensively, closing the gap by four. Fortunately Cunane was OK, and returned to the game shortly after.
The Blue Devils strung some tough buckets together to lead off the fourth quarter, and kept the game within three for the first several minutes. They got within one when Akinbode-James posted-up Cunane for a tough bank shot. But Akinbode-James committed a 50/50 foul on the other end, her fourth of the afternoon and sending her to the bench for the next five minutes. With her on the bench, Cunane accounted for six points without a turnover or missed shot. Duke then had to keep a second body near her at all times, opening up three straight Wolfpack threes. And that was the game.
“We wanted to get back to going inside-out [in the fourth quarter],” said N.C. State head coach Wes Moore. “Our post players are very high-percentage shooters, and we've got to get them touches. And then that makes the defense have to make a choice. And when they decide to dig down, double down from the top, whatever, that's when our shooters can spot-up. And I don't think there's anybody in the world that shoots better off the move than they do spotted-up… When you have three-straight threes, that gets the crowd going, and that gives you a lot of confidence. That was probably the turning point in the game.”
Duke (15-9, 6-8 in the ACC) has been an enigma this year, rolling from a near-catastrophic blown lead against one of the worst teams in the SEC in Alabama to a beatdown of then-No. 9 Iowa; from giving No. 1 South Carolina a fight to a 22-point loss to Virginia Tech; from a tough win over No. 18 Notre Dame to a blown lead against Virginia Tech and a blowout loss at N.C. State (23-3, 14-1 in the ACC). The Blue Devils’ Thursday loss against Florida State was the whole experience condensed, the team mounting a middle-half comeback, allowing an 11-1 run to start the fourth quarter, then nearly tying the game in the waning seconds.
No Blue Devil has exemplified this more than Gordon. The floor-spacer started off the year hitting 53.3% of her threes through the team’s first five games; she then hit just 17.5% from deep over her next 12. Over the team's last five games before Sunday, she was up to 50.0%.
Fortunately for Duke, this hot streak extended through tough ACC play: Gordon shot 2-of-3 from three in the first quarter, both go-ahead shots to give the Blue Devils their first two leads of the year against N.C. State. And they were perfectly emblematic of the offense Lawson’s wanted: the first opened up off Day-Wilson dribble penetration and was perfectly in-rhythm, the second came off a Day-Wilson away screen.
Lawson said after the Florida State loss that she had little problem with the Blue Devils’ offensive opportunities in the loss, but the team just came out flat in the first half and didn’t hit its openings in rhythm in the fourth quarter. Throughout the first half against N.C. State, Duke found its openings, and it found them in rhythm. And after allowing the Wolfpack to score the first six points of the game, the Blue Devils ripped off a 36-25 run through the early third quarter.
“I think it just goes to show that we can play with anybody that is in front of us,” said Gordon. “Honestly, we're just gonna have to keep working, we're gonna have to keep being disciplined down the stretch, and once we get that, I think we're gonna be able to string some wins along.”
N.C. State responded in kind, ripping off an 11-0 run behind tough conversion at the rim and Duke's early offensive woes reemerging.
The biggest key to Duke’s runs, both ones it's won and ones it's lost, was the transition game. That’s something Lawson has harped on all season long; when the Blue Devils lose, she’s more often than not noted their inability to stop fast breaks. For Duke, when the shots aren’t falling, defenses pinch and dribble penetration gets harder. And when dribble penetration gets harder, turnovers and late-clock heaves put the opponent on offense much farther upcourt.
In the first quarter, the Wolfpack outscored the Blue Devils by five in fast break points. Across its second-to-early-third-quarter run, Duke won that margin by seven. The 13-0 N.C. State run that put it ahead for good was keyed by transition and semi-transition opportunities.
The Wolfpack have now won eight of the last 10 Tobacco Road rivalry games.
“The goal is to try to keep growing. It's a challenge in sport, because everything's so outcome-based, right? Like, everyone paints the picture, or reviews the game, based on outcome, win or loss,” said Lawson. “I get it. Me, I've been in sport my whole life, I get it. For us, we try to focus on the growth that we're having, and make sure that that doesn't start receding, that we're continuing to get better… I think if you do that: One, you improve, you get better; and two, it's a funny thing that happens: Outcomes start turning in the way that you want… And we've got an opportunity Thursday [against Virginia] to see if we can put ourselves on the right side.”
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