PORTLAND, Ore.—Shayeann Day-Wilson had season-highs of 17 points and seven rebounds, UConn’s top three scorers combined for 54 points on 58.8% shooting, and the Blue Devils lost to the Huskies behind a swell of UConn transition points.
Duke fell to the third-ranked Huskies 78-50 Friday, dropping its first ranked matchup of the year and moving into the consolation bracket at the Phil Knight Legacy. Duke found itself in a strange paradox: It looked like it belonged on the same court as UConn, but at the same time, the Blue Devils trailed by 12 at the half. Their defense was just as suffocating as the Huskies’, they were shooting well from three for the first time all season, and both Day-Wilson and Elizabeth Balogun balled out. But what sunk them was how frequently they allowed the Huskies out on fast breaks.
“We just didn't sprint as hard as we could, and we didn't match up as quickly as we needed to,” said Duke head coach Kara Lawson after the game. “[We] certainly identified transition defense before the game as a key to stopping [UConn]; they're very good in transition, one of the best teams in the country. And we weren't able to do that. And so, for whatever reason, we weren't locked in to what was a big-time key, and weren't able to execute that.”
There were multiple times in the first quarter when the Blue Devils (5-1) looked like they could have fallen behind for good, but they battled to stay close every time. When the Huskies (4-0) scored early on a couple of easy post-ups, Day-Wilson answered with a pair of stepback threes. When UConn started taking advantage of Duke’s halfcourt offense and scoring in transition, Balogun tied the game with back-to-back jumpers.
What put Duke in a big hole was going to its bench at the end of the period: The all-bench lineup was a -4 in only 84 seconds, looking especially overmatched on offense. Celeste Taylor and junior center Kennedy Brown checked back in to start the second quarter, and while the Blue Devils never came particularly close to tying the game, they were significantly more competitive once they checked back in. In the 6.5 minutes Duke played at least three starters in that frame, the teams were even in scoring.
“We just had too many people play non-competitively today,” said Lawson.
Duke and UConn had about the same number of turnovers, both overall and live-ball, at halftime, but the Blue Devils could not turn them into transition chances. After averaging 16.8 fast break points per game coming into Friday’s contest, per CBB Analytics, Duke was outscored 15-3 by the Huskies in transition. It didn’t matter that it defended UConn well in the halfcourt—no team can win when it allows the opponent five times as many transition points.
“At this point in time, in our program and their program, I think we have more finishers, we have more shooters than they have,” said Husky head coach Geno Auriemma. “So when we do get out in transition, we have more people that, when they touch it, can score. And that's a part of our game that we spent a lot of time on.”
If the transition issues were not enough, the Blue Devils also got killed on the boards, collecting only a 2.2% offensive rebounding rate in the first half. That’s not only far below their 30th-ranked season-long mark of 40.8%, but is nearly a quarter of last-ranked Wright State’s mark, per Her Hoop Stats.
Despite superstar guard Paige Bueckers being out for the season with an ACL tear, UConn had earned every bit of its No. 3 ranking coming into Friday. Sophomore guard Azzi Fudd had scored 32 points in consecutive games and was scoring at an excellent 67.4% true-shooting rate; junior guard Nika Mühl was leading the country in assists per game and had a 3.88 assist-to-turnover ratio; its primary wings and forwards, Aaliyah Edwards, Lou Lopez Sénéchal and Aubrey Griffin, were shooting excellently on high volume.
There were more than a few premier matchups in this game, from UConn’s sterling offense against Duke’s suffocating defense, to Day-Wilson versus Nika Mühl, to Fudd versus Taylor. And those matchups lived up to their billings: Day-Wilson drained a few threes in isolation over Mühl, but the UConn guard’s ball pressure prevented Day-Wilson from ever getting comfortable driving to the rim; Taylor held Fudd to only 2-for-3 from three, but the Husky shooter got to 14 points and three assists by getting around Duke’s ball screen coverages.
“This was a step up in class for us. This is the best opponent we've faced,” said Lawson. “And so things are gonna be a lot harder, you're gonna be able to disrupt less … We weren't ready for it today. … I think you have to always be honest with yourself when you fall short.”
The Blue Devils will next play Sunday against Oregon State to round out their time at the Phil Knight Legacy.
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