PORTLAND, Ore.—Alaska’s annual Iditarod, a long-distance dog sled race across the state, is one of the world’s hardest sporting endeavors for numerous reasons—the weather, the terrain, the competition, etc. In so many ways, however, the key to pulling through the finish line at Nome on the western coast is just hanging on.
When playing the best the college game has to offer Friday afternoon, Duke’s aim was similar: just hold on.
A game against the most successful program in women’s college basketball was bound to be tough, and a loss can hardly be called a failure given the names and numbers on the Huskies’ roster. The Blue Devils should be proud that they held firm and stood tall with a respectable performance of their own and, for long stretches of the first half, remained competitive.
Unfortunately for head coach Kara Lawson and her team, once the second half hit, the rope slipped, the sled crashed and the Huskies raced away to win 78-50.
“I just didn't think we played with the same competitiveness that our opponent did,” Lawson said after the game. “I felt like we got frustrated by the margin and allowed it to impact us and that's disappointing. That's something that we need to change. Obviously, we played a really good team, and we weren't able to match their ability to score.”
The biggest culprit was that Duke lacked the ability to galvanize the rest of the group to the same standard as its marquee performers.
Shayeann Day-Wilson and Elizabeth Balogun will leave this game with their heads held high. The former—the reigning ACC Freshman of the Year—dropped 17 points with seven rebounds, leading her team in both metrics and showing by far the most hustle and technical capability of anyone wearing white. The latter came off the bench and put up 13 points in 30 minutes, both second on the team.
For all the brilliance of Duke’s international duo, the same output cannot be said of the remaining eight players that saw the floor. Traditional standout Celeste Taylor contributed just four points and four boards, starters Kennedy Brown and Lee Volker put up five points and six rebounds between them and freshman guard Ashlon Jackson contributed two 3-pointers from the bench but was otherwise ineffective.
Day-Wilson outscored the rest of the starting lineup by eight and Balogun outscored the bench by two. In a game against this type of opponent, where defense is relentless, mistakes are fatal and the shooting edge is as sharp as a Michelin-star chef’s choice knife, the dulled blade the Blue Devils bore was simply not going to cut it.
This is a trend that plagued Duke in its turbulent 2021-22 campaign as well. Day-Wilson was Lawson’s lockpick when games got close and the team’s positive takeaway otherwise. It is great to have that kind of player—points win games, after all—on the roster, but when that player is your X-, Y- and Z-factor, your plan A, B and C, the chances of winning in the way the Blue Devils want to—dominantly and clinically—go way down.
In many ways, UConn was the perfect antithesis. Usual superstar Paige Bueckers, who averaged 14.6 points per game last season and 20 the season before, is out for the year with an ACL tear. Losing their best player should have been a death blow for the Huskies, but this team was never about parts of the sum, but the sum of the parts. Nika Mühl’s 10 assists assumed the playmaking burden, Aaliyah Edwards’ 11 rebounds took care of the boards and Lou Lopez Sénéchal’s 23 points speak for themselves.
“I think we had enough people to compete in this game,” Lawson said. “[The Huskies are] missing people that are a big part of what they do. I don't think that that was the reason for the loss or anything like that.”
Sans its superstar, UConn opted to share the wealth instead. For it, a final at the Moda Center and the chance for an early-season trophy await.
Without a superhero, UConn soared. With two, Duke did not.
The Huskies are No. 3 for a reason: Their players are fantastic and their system is smooth. A loss is not the problem for the Blue Devils, but the trends it outlined certainly are. If Day-Wilson had an uncharacteristic off-day, who would have stepped in to fill the void? If Balogun didn’t show up from the bench, who else would have?
Largely, Duke’s defense did its job. For all the difficulties on the offensive end, Taylor and Brown shored up the defense when they were on the floor, and the Blue Devils even caused more turnovers than they gave up. All that said, 33% from the field simply cannot compete with 51%, and 26 rebounds cannot compete with 42, especially when a good bit of those made shots and rebounds came from one starter and another chunk from one bench player.
“For us, this is the best opponent we’ve faced,” Lawson said. “And so things are gonna be a lot harder, you're gonna be able to disrupt less. That's what happens when you play higher level competition. So we weren't ready for it today.”
Duke performed admirably to hang with the Huskies for as long as it did, and Day-Wilson and Balogun should rightfully receive plaudits for their monumental offensive efforts. If the Blue Devils want to compete in the ACC and revive their place on the national stage, however, they don’t need one or two power players. They need a team that works like one.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
Andrew Long is a Trinity sophomore and Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.