It’s been, to put it mildly, a turbulent last couple weeks for Duke.
After two consecutive wins against Miami and Virginia, the Blue Devils have endured a difficult three-game skid, losing by double digits to North Carolina, Louisville and Georgia Tech. In a much-needed response, head coach Kara Lawson’s Duke team pushed through a slog of a contest to win 54-39 against Pittsburgh Thursday at the Petersen Events Center.
Lawson finally made her return to the Blue Devil sideline after an announcement last week that she was isolating due to health and safety protocols and it’ll be one she should be satisfied with, mostly from a results perspective. Junior guard Celeste Taylor, who has been a much-missed absence after suffering an undisclosed shoulder injury against Syracuse in early January, also made her return to the starting five.
“Celeste is one of our best players,” said Lawson. “She's somebody that impacts every aspect of the game. I think she impacts our team positively in everything, every aspect of the game. And you know, we're thrilled obviously to have her back.”
Against a Panthers side that, admittedly, wasn’t as potent a threat as Duke’s last three opponents, the Blue Devils (14-7, 5-6 ACC) were expectantly untroubled with standout days for senior Onome Akinbode-James and fifth-year Lexi Gordon who combined for 20 points and 12 rebounds. If questions were being asked as to whether Duke could still compete in the upper echelons of the ACC, Thursday’s result, despite its low score, at least got the Blue Devils back on track.
Duke made an emphatic start in the Keystone State, roaring out to a 15-4 lead to close out the first quarter behind Gordon’s seven points and Akinbode-James’ six. The Blue Devils comprehensively dominated the paint as well, out-rebounding Pittsburgh 13-7. From even the first 10 minutes it was clear that there was only going to be one winner in Thursday’s contest, and it wasn’t going to be the yellow-clad Panthers (11-11, 2-9 in the ACC).
Even when the game got relatively close, like when Pitt brought it within five in the second quarter following 2-of-12 shooting from Duke, the Blue Devils firmly and quickly righted the ship. Elizabeth Balogun closed the quarter with a much-needed and-one to restore the lead to eight as the rest of her team shut the Panthers down after the break, posting 28 points to Pittsburgh's 21 in the closing 20 minutes.
That’s not to say Duke played lights-out, however. The game was not easy on the eye and was full of clunky errors from both teams, culminating in a rebound and turnover-heavy contest with paltry shooting rates for both teams and a remarkably low scoreline that sat at just 26-18 at half. The Blue Devils only shot 35% from the field and once again struggled off the turnover, conceding 16 points. Pittsburgh’s statline was even less remarkable, going 23% from the field and losing the battle on the glass 48-46.
“We played a few games in the last few days and we knew that we needed to grind this one out,” said Gordon.
Despite Taylor’s and Lawson’s returns, neither was the primary orchestrator of Duke’s win in Pennsylvania. That honor belongs to Lexi Gordon, whose 12 points on a 40% mark from the field, including three triples, led both teams and proved to be the offensive catalyst with her reliable sharpshooting from deep.
Three-point shooting on the whole proved an effective outlet for the Blue Devils throughout the night, with just under half of the full time count attributable to eight hits from downtown, even if they only shot 32%. With struggles on the put-back and slippery hands in the paint, Lawson and company were forced out wide. Though they didn’t make every shot, lots of chances often resulted in lots of points, and this abundance of chances proved the difference in what anyone will tell you was a sloppy game.
“It's not been an easy stretch for us,” said Lawson. “But I think to show the resiliency they showed, show that toughness, mental toughness, to lose three in a row but to find a way to get a win, hopefully it just goes back to our belief in ourselves, our belief in the system and what we can be. We feel like by the end of the year, we can be a good team. But it's not enough to say it, you actually have to do it and you have to win games.”
Thursday may not have been the resounding return Lawson or Taylor were hoping for, but winning ugly is arguably more important than winning commandingly. Duke fans will hope for a resumption of form for their star guard, more clinical shooting across the board and stronger handling when they take on Wake Forest at home Sunday.
It was a game where the result was more important than the performance and, if nothing else, the Blue Devils got the result they desperately needed.
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Andrew Long is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.