CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA.—Duke needed a win today. It badly needed a win.
What you need isn’t always what you get, though.
With the formerly top-25 Blue Devils struggling to find form as of late and dropping to a disappointing 10th in the ACC table, a rebound was needed against a floundering Virginia team at the John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville, Va., Thursday. Duke saw itself a projected 10 seed in March before tip-off, meaning a string of victories—something that’s been exceedingly hard to come by in recent weeks—was a necessity for its hopes this spring.
Though its 16-point blowout loss to North Carolina at home in January certainly hurt, Thursday’s 67-54 defeat to Virginia will arguably be harder to stomach. The Cavaliers were without an ACC win before the Blue Devils came to town, but sent their opponents home with their first conference win in almost two calendar years.
“Disappointing evening for us,” said head coach Kara Lawson. “I thought Virginia played with much more energy and spirit and effort than we did and they deserved to win the game.”
The game was far more contentious for the Blue Devils (15-10, 6-9 in the ACC) than most would have expected prior to the whistle; struggles on rebounding, wastefulness on the shot and a concerning number of turnovers punctuated a difficult evening for Duke and blatantly illustrated what needs to change if it wants to rediscover its impressive early season form. It’s easy to forget that this is a team that hung with No. 1 South Carolina and defeated then-No. 9 Iowa in December as it has recently struggled to put away weaker ACC opponents and has been comprehensively outplayed by its table-topping conference rivals.
It was a tumultuous evening for Lawson and her team from the gun, going punch-for-punch with the Cavaliers (4-21, 1-14 in the ACC) and trailing 19-14 by the end of the first quarter. Duke endured a field goal drought of over four minutes in the middle of the period and put up a 1-of-9 shooting stretch on the way, with Celeste Taylor’s five points—three of which came from the line—being a rare bright spot in an otherwise discouraging opening 10 minutes. Jade Williams, who put up 10 points across the game, was forced to the bench early after a couple of quick fouls.
The second quarter was an almost identical showing as the first and even possessed the exact same scoreline. The Blue Devils trailed 38-28 at the break and felt the same pressure from the swashbuckling Cavaliers, who not only out-scored, out-shot and out-rebounded Duke, but registered just their second double-digit halftime lead of the season in the ACC and only their fifth in the last four years.
The Blue Devils suffered another blow late in the second quarter, as freshman guard Shayeann Day-Wilson collided with a Virginia player at the top of the arc and hit the floor hard. Thankfully, she walked herself off the court and saw the hardwood again after the half.
“You’re gonna get knocked down, you’re gonna get pushed around, you’re gonna fall,” said Duke’s Imani Lewis in response to Day-Wilson’s collision. “It's just basketball. Sometimes we think it's a foul or something...but in that situation, we just have to move on, we got to help her up and move on.”
At least on the defensive end, Duke undoubtedly improved in the latter 20 minutes of the game and conceded 29 points to the 38 it conceded in the first, but that means little if the offensive output doesn’t also increase. The Blue Devils still struggled on the turnover and with their accuracy on the shot, ceding the ball 19 times and going a measly 34% from the floor. It’s not like Virginia was draining threes, either—it notched 32 of its points off lay-ups, after all—but Duke’s difficulty at controlling the paint and putting away its own chances were its kryptonite.
“I'm most concerned with getting us playing at a higher level than we are right now,” said Lawson. “The result, of course, we want to win and we need to win. We don't want to go on a losing streak here to end the season. We need to win games. But I think that the result comes after the effort.”
By game’s end, the Cavaliers’ own clinicality from the key and graduate student Amandine Toi’s 21 points were a bit too much for the Blue Devils. Taylor is still working her way back to the electric form of early season and put up a respectable 11 points. Williams was the only other Duke player to hit double digits but was absent for much of the first half and Day-Wilson’s six assists at least showed her playmaking capabilities in a down evening for the superstar freshman.
It’s been a long last few weeks for Lawson and her Blue Devils. Easing back an injured Taylor, facing a relentless ACC gauntlet and experimenting with no less than eight different starting fives has made this season a true tale-of-two-halves, with the ruthless dominance of November and December now a distant memory as a trying start to 2022 has tested Duke’s resolve, resilience and roster depth.
Thursday’s game felt like, and was, a must win. The Blue Devils aren’t down and out just yet in terms of the NCAA tournament, but the clock is ticking game by game as to how, and if, they’ll be represented come March. Sunday’s trip to similarly struggling Clemson seems now, more than ever, make or break.
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Andrew Long is a Trinity sophomore and Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.