There are good wins and there are bad wins. But on the bright side for Duke, every win counts the same.
Duke rode a 10-0 opening run to beat North Carolina A&T 77-57 at midday Monday. Behind a full-court press, improved transition offense and some new transfers showing out, the Blue Devils improved to a 3-0 mark in season-openers under head coach Kara Lawson. But foul trouble plagued Duke; center Kennedy Brown fouled out only three minutes into the fourth quarter, four more Blue Devils finished with at least three fouls and nearly 60% of North Carolina A&T’s points came at the line as Duke surpassed its previous single-game fouls record.
“I thought it was a poor performance by us,” said Lawson. “Really displeased with the second half, that's as bad defensively as we've been. … We've got to be better. So we have a lot of work to do.”
Forward Elizabeth Balogun led the Blue Devils (1-0) with 15 points, five rebounds, three assists and two steals. Joining her in double-digits were Brown, who had 13 points on a perfect 6-of-6 from the field; combo guard Celeste Taylor, with 12 points including 2-of-3 from three, three assists, two blocks and two steals; and wing Reigan Richardson, who notched 11 points on 5-of-8 shooting, three assists and two steals. Eight different Duke players recorded three assists.
From the final score alone, Duke’s performance doesn’t jump off the page; last year’s Blue Devils opened with an even more dominant win before a disappointing end to the season. But their opponent ended up the 10th-worst team in Division I by net rating, per Her Hoop Stats, while North Carolina A&T (0-1) was an above-average squad.
It was clear from the jump that these Blue Devils were a step above last year’s. The first sign was the transition offense. After a year in which Duke was middle-of-the-pack in both transition frequency and efficiency, per Synergy, the Blue Devils got their first four points on the fast break. Off-ball players ran hard to the right spots, allowing forward Lee Volker and point guard Jordyn Oliver to rack up assists hitting cutters and trailers after defensive stops.
Just as notable was Duke’s full-court press. After not having such a coverage in the playbook last year, Lawson called up midway through the first quarter. It immediately forced an Aggie turnover that led to a layup for Brown to push the Blue Devils’ opening run out to 10-0.
That is not to say that everything was sunshine and roses for Duke. There were clear cracks in the press, including Vanessa de Jesus and Volker getting beaten off the catch, and the Blue Devils not having a backline defender well-positioned to protect the rim once an Aggie broke the press. Lineups with big Shay Bollin, the No. 33 recruit in this year’s freshman class, also struggled; she was the only Duke player with a negative plus-minus in the first half.
But the positives clearly outweighed the negatives. Brown looked significantly more comfortable as a rim protector and play-finisher, and made some eye-popping passes over the top of the North Carolina A&T defense. De Jesus looked a lot more comfortable in the game flow than last year, knocking down a spot-up three and stuffing the first-half stat sheet with four rebounds, three assists and a block. Volker made good on Lawson’s decision to keep her in the starting lineup, providing good defense both on the perimeter and in the paint. And Richardson starred on both ends, with excellent wing defense, feel for the game and an improved spot-up jumper leading to nine points, the most she has ever scored in a first half—and in only eight minutes.
“We have a long way to go on the offensive end, but their spirit is really good on the offensive end,” said Lawson. “You can see they're trying to share the ball, they're trying to make plays for each other, they get excited when one of their teammates does something. So that part, I'm not disappointed in. That part is intact, and I feel good about the foundation of our group in that way.”
Duke maintained its lead through the third quarter, but foul trouble and lineup experimentation kept it from pulling away. Bollin saw extended minutes in the quarter for the first time all game, but the team was a -6 in that span, mostly on account of a series of questionable foul calls that contributed to 13 Aggie free throws over just that period.
The foul trouble continued into the fourth quarter. By the end of the game, the Blue Devils had committed 29 fouls and sent North Carolina A&T to the line 37 times, both single-game program records.
“I think I was talking nice to the officials or something,” Aggie head coach Tarrell Robinson joked. “They were calling a heck of a game; I kept telling them that. So they kept making calls, I guess.”
Duke will look to stay out of foul trouble the next time it hits the court, Thursday at home against Charleston Southern.
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