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Duke women’s basketball freshmen have a field day against Pittsburgh in ACC tournament

Freshman Shayeann Day-Wilson dropped a team-high 22 points to pull Duke past Pittsburgh in first round of the ACC tournament.
Freshman Shayeann Day-Wilson dropped a team-high 22 points to pull Duke past Pittsburgh in first round of the ACC tournament.

GREENSBORO, N.C.—The Duke women’s basketball Instagram account posted a video Tuesday where Shayeann Day-Wilson confidently said “0-0. New season.”

When the dust settled after a whirlwind final few minutes at the Greensboro Coliseum in the first round of the Women’s ACC tournament Wednesday, there turned out to be some truth to that proclamation as the Blue Devils eked out a 55-52 win over a resilient Pittsburgh. 

And poetically, the declarer proved difference-maker.

Day-Wilson has had about as perfect a couple days as anyone could hope for—ACC Freshman of the Year distinction as decided by the conference’s coaches Tuesday, 22 points including two crucial buckets down the stretch and a firm snap of the demoralizing losing streak Duke endured prior. A 28-point hammering at the hands of North Carolina in Chapel Hill Sunday sent the Blue Devils to Greensboro reeling, but by strength of will and the iciest of veins, head coach Kara Lawson’s tough Torontonian threw her team back onto level ground.

“Anyone that's watched us play this year knows how important Shy [Day-Wilson] has been to our success,” said Lawson. “She plays with great competitiveness and she's a two way player, she guards on the defensive end, she scores on the offensive end, she's able to pass and she's not afraid.”

The last 1:47 of a tournament game doesn’t leave room for fear. When a game gets tight down the stretch, a team needs confidence and it needs audacity. Day-Wilson was both.

Tied at 48 with just over two minutes to play, the contest was poised on a knife’s edge. Pittsburgh's shots were still falling fairly frequently and Duke couldn’t quite seize control of a game that since the halftime buzzer it had dominated. In a moment that looked like Duke was about to suffer a humiliating defeat to the ACC’s worst team, forward stepped the freshmen to allay the uncertainty.

“The work didn’t stop,” said Day-Wilson. “I just got to keep staying locked in and keeping my team to get the wins.”

A flawless pull-up jumper and clutch trey, celebrated with a wink to the camera, later, and Duke was finally back to winning ways.

She wasn’t alone in pulling her team’s weight, however. Fellow freshman Lee Volker made her first start of the season in place of Elizabeth Balogun and carried the Blue Devils’ efforts around the glass throughout, posting eight rebounds, split evenly between the offensive and defensive glass.

The Virginia native is an alum of historic basketball talent factory St. Paul VI–the same high school boasting the likes of Trevor Keels and Jeremy Roach on the men’s team–but saw minutes, and influence, hard to come by in the opening weeks of the year. When it has mattered, however, she’s turned up. Though Duke didn’t win its match against Boston College late last month, Volker tirelessly ran the floor and hounded the Eagles’ offensive weapons, earning the praise and trust of Lawson in the postgame press-conference, who commended her defensive capabilities and rebounding dominance.

When Duke exited the floor victorious Wednesday, Volker was the last to make her way past Lawson, who embraced her with a smile and a pat on the back. Safe to say, her coach’s faith was repaid.

In November, when we were all speculating about this season and predicting Duke’s record in Lawson’s first full season with the team, our eyes turned first to high-profile transfers, program veterans and freshman returners. We saw Elizabeth Balogun as a defensive lockpiece, Celeste Taylor as an offensive dynamo and Vanessa de Jesus as the program’s definitive point guard. These are all fantastic players, of course, but when it got down to crunch-time it was the new blue blood that stepped up to the challenge.

“[I’m] just really proud of our group,” said Lawson. “Winning games in this league is not easy. It's not been easy for us all year.”

That Instagram post from Tuesday at first glance seemed a sad indictment of a program needing a rebound and a rebrand after a string of identity-shattering and morale-crushing defeats. Upon a second look and largely thanks to its freshman phenoms, it now seems more of a rallying cry to close a trying year on a high.

Assuming Day-Wilson’s logic, the team is now 1-0 and this “new season” is off to an encouraging start. The tricky part, as always, is making sure it stays that way. Duke has a chance to keep the momentum going Thursday at 6 p.m. against Miami. 

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