GREENSBORO, N.C.—The atmosphere at Greensboro Coliseum was anything but dull as the Blue Devils and Panthers battled in a tightly-contested battle in the first round of the ACC tournament.
In a match requiring determination down the stretch, the 10th-seeded Blue Devils overcame a 16-point deficit in the final 25 minutes to take down 15th-seeded Pittsburgh 55-52 Wednesday afternoon.
It was clear from the opening tip that this contest would be a hotly-contested one, as neither team could snag control. It was not until the final seconds of play that Duke secured the victory, advancing to the second round of the conference tournament.
“The first quarter didn’t go the way that we had hoped, but we were able to battle back with our defense, and with some some big shots late by a number of players on the team,” head coach Kara Lawson said at the post-game press conference. “I’m just really proud of our group. Winning games in this league is not easy—it has not been easy for us all year. So anytime we get [a win], we're really pleased.”
The Blue Devils and Panthers both struggled from the field throughout the match. With three minutes elapsed in the fourth quarter, it wasn’t until Duke senior Onome Akinbode-James made a layup off of her own rebound that the scoring started to pick up. Both teams went back and forth on the scoreboard, and with 1:33 remaining on the clock, the score stood at 50-49 in Duke’s favor.
But thanks to roughly twenty seconds of collaborative ball movement, Blue Devil guard Shayeann Day-Wilson added a 3-pointer, giving Duke the upper hand and a four-point edge.
“I was just really trying to score and do what I can,” Day-Wilson said. “My team, I really think, is connected [when working] together.”
Heading into the second half trailing by nine, Duke needed to return to the floor ready to pull off a comeback win. And despite shooting 7-of-25 from the field to the Panthers’ own 13-of-27 in the first 20 minutes of play, the Blue Devils came back from the locker room and did precisely that.
“At halftime, we just talked about where we can improve, what we need to do better the second half and ways that we can get looks for [for being] sharper defensively,” Lawson said. “It's really just giving them the tools to help them be successful. That's what I want—I want them all to play well. I want them all to have great games.”
In just the first four minutes of the half, Duke nearly caught up to the Panthers with a 9-3 run. Senior Elizabeth Balogun began the scoring from Duke’s side with a jumper in the paint, and that energy quickly transferred to junior guard Celeste Taylor, who made a fast-break layup before Pittsburgh’s Liatu King knocked down a jumper.
Though the Panthers picked it up once more to extend their lead on the Blue Devils, with 4:20 left in the third quarter, Duke appeared done letting its opponent take the game over. After Sandrine Clesca began a 4-0 Panther run to give Pittsburgh a nine-point lead again, Day-Wilson clearly wasn’t pleased with the Panther’s success, adding three points herself to begin Duke’s 7-0 scoring run.
Day-Wilson’s run brought the Blue Devils to within one by the end of the third period.
“I think [we were able to come back through] toughness, just battling, keeping our grit, staying hungry and staying locked together as a team,” Day-Wilson said.
Early in the contest, neither Duke nor Pittsburgh could find its footing. It wasn’t until the Panthers took a step in the right direction that the game ceased to be a back-and-forth affair.
With the score tied and just over five minutes left in the first, two baskets by Pittsburgh’s Dayshanette Harris began a scoring run that would give the Panthers a 20-9 lead at the end of the quarter.
Yet, Duke looked like it had flipped the switch when it returned to the court for the second period. With 8:57 to play in the quarter, a layup by Akinbode-James gave the Blue Devils some momentum. After a free throw from sophomore guard Vanessa de Jesus, Duke had closed the Panthers’ lead to eight points. That was in part via some restrictive man-to-man defense, as the Blue Devils prevented any Panther from easily getting to the basket in the early stages of the second quarter.
“The reality of the situation was, [our deficit wasn’t from] the type of defense that we were in,” Lawson said. “It was the aggression that we were playing with offensively, and so I thought towards the end of that second quarter—we found it.”
But despite the strong start to the quarter, Duke’s run was short-lived, as Pittsburgh finally grabbed back the momentum it had in the first quarter. As the Panthers brought back the heat, the Blue Devils went back to struggling from the field. Pittsburgh was impressive offensively for the rest of the half, while Duke went on a multi-possession scoring drought until Day-Wilson added two shots from the free throw line.
Day-Wilson led Duke on the afternoon with 22 points, five assists and three rebounds, while Taylor added 11 points and five rebounds of her own.
The Blue Devils will next take on 7th-seeded Miami Thursday at 6 p.m. at the Greensboro Coliseum.
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Ana Young is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle’s 118th volume.