Duke fans held their breaths as Austin Peay guard Liz Gibbs stepped up to the free throw line with under five seconds left on the clock Thursday. It was not the fourth quarter but the first, and fans were not worried about the score, but the lack thereof.
As both free throws rimmed out, and the Blue Devils corralled the rebound, they accomplished a feat never before seen in program history: holding an opponent scoreless through an entire quarter.
In its first 10 games, defense has been the calling card for Duke. Coming into Thursday’s matchup, the Blue Devils were allowing just 50.6 points per game on 31.4% opponent shooting. This trend continued against the Governors, who shot just 31.8% in a 74-31 Duke victory.
By halftime, Duke had forced 20 turnovers while holding the Governors to just 11 points. Despite this defensive dominance, the Blue Devils struggled at times on the offensive side against a clearly outmatched Austin Peay. While Duke forced 12 first-quarter turnovers, they gave away the ball eight times in the frame themselves.
“The turnovers [were] something I was pleased with, and something I wasn't pleased with. [Our] turnovers, particularly in the first half, were frustrating, and I think we're farther along defensively than we are offensively,” head coach Kara Lawson said after the game. “We just weren't very fluid offensively. The ball was sticking, and we were forcing passes and trying to force plays when the easy play was available.”
Many of these turnovers came trying to feed the ball inside to Kennedy Brown and Mia Heide, who both had a clear size advantage in the post. Even when Duke did properly run its sets, execution often faltered early, and while a few missed layups made little difference in the final score, they could decide a game down the line against a more talented team.
“You have to execute, cut hard, drive and make a read,” Lawson said. “You can't just think, ‘Oh, we're running a play, it's gonna work.’ That's specifically true in conference play because everybody scouts everybody. So, you have to be able to make plays versus physical athletic players.”
The Blue Devils did not struggle the entire game, going on runs in which they scored with ease, often in transition. Duke seemed most comfortable in this level of the game, as playing off its defensive strengths led to some easy looks. The Blue Devils also found their footing inside, finishing with 52 of their 74 points inside the paint.
The problem for the Blue Devils has not been their final output, but rather lulls in the game that tougher competition will take advantage of. Lawson pointed particularly to pace as an area of improvement for the team, saying that getting into offensive sets in the half-court took too much time.
This team has shown recently that it can perform at an extremely high level; it turned in its best offensive performance Sunday in a 100-point showing against Richmond.
In that matchup, Duke shot above 60% from the field and from 3-point range through the first three quarters before emptying the bench in the fourth. The Blue Devils looked comfortable on offense against a team that had ranked near the top of its conference in defense.
Instead, the area that plagued them at times in that game was defense. The Blue Devils gave up too many open looks to Richmond and were lucky the Spiders did not knock more down. Again, against better teams, they might not have the same luck.
In both of its last two games, Duke has exhibited enough control to pull away with ease. What Lawson and the team are working toward, and what has evaded them to this point in the season, is a complete four quarters.
In order to accomplish this goal, the Blue Devils will need continued output from their core of Celeste Taylor, Shayeann Day-Wilson, Brown, Elizabeth Balogun, Reigan Richardson and fresh-off-injury Taya Corosdale. While it was Balogun who led the way Thursday with 16 points, each of these players has shown the ability to score in double figures and make a substantial impact on both sides of the ball.
“There's a lot good a lot of good things about this team, but one thing I will say is just our selfishness,” Balogun said. “That's on defense, not even just on offense. It's the little stuff, like somebody's helping, somebody's stunting to help, just the little stuff and knowing that everybody has your back.”
Looking forward, Duke ends its nonconference schedule with a challenge Sunday at Florida Gulf Coast before jumping into conference play against Virginia Dec. 21. With a strong nonconference showing, Duke can exceed its preseason expectations after being forecasted to finish seventh in the conference. It will come down to complete performances from the Blue Devils, who in back-to-back games have now put forth their best offensive and defensive outings.
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