FORT MYERS, Fla.—With four teams ranked in the top 10 and five more receiving votes, the ACC is the toughest conference in the country this year. It’s good news for Duke, then, that it is entering conference play in its best shape of the season.
The Blue Devils beat Florida Gulf Coast 70-48 at Alico Arena Sunday, overcoming a sloppy start to make the second half mostly uncompetitive. The Eagles’ famed five-out system gave Duke fits to start, but once they settled into the warm atmosphere, the Blue Devils’ defensive talent and improving chemistry shone through. Combo forward Elizabeth Balogun led the team with 16 points on 7-of-11 shooting and added four rebounds and three assists. Guards Celeste Taylor and Shayeann Day-Wilson combined for 25 points, with the former adding five steals and a Duke-career-high three blocks.
“Against Duke, you really gotta work hard to create easy passes and get the ball moving,” said FGCU head coach Karl Smesko after the game. “They're going to full-court press you. … They're gonna put ball pressure, they're going to challenge passing lanes, they're going to take away some passes, they're going to utilize the switch one-through-four to take things away. … I think they're a top-20 team in the nation.”
The second quarter marked the turning point for both teams. After settling for long, contested jumpers in the first 10 minutes, the Blue Devils (10-1) made a concerted effort to kick ahead in transition or to drive downhill and find Balogun in the paint in the halfcourt. The change worked well, with Balogun scoring 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting in the second period alone. But Duke could not pull away, on account of its defense overcorrecting to its first-quarter help issues; the Eagles (8-2) held serve by getting open on several back cuts when Blue Devils over-helped.
It turned out that a little time to regroup was all Duke needed. When the referees took a long timeout mid-quarter to review a possible intentional foul, the Blue Devils switched things up a little: They hedged harder, tagged rollers longer and switched more off-ball actions. The result was an 11-0 run that effectively put the game away, as Duke went into halftime up 35-22.
“I didn’t sleep well the last three nights trying to figure out how to guard them—they’re really hard to guard,” said Duke head coach Kara Lawson. “And I thought our team overall was very, very disciplined, [for] four quarters. To hold them to 48 points and the [shooting] percentage that we did, I think just speaks to the players’ effort and their discipline.”
The Blue Devils’ run did benefit from the referees awarding them a few 50/50 fouls. Seemingly to make up for that, FGCU earned a few questionable calls, both from fouls on Duke and no-calls on the Eagles. All that meant was a total of 77 seconds in which FGCU was able to cut its deficit down to single digits.
But beyond outscoring the Eagles by 20 points over the final 24 minutes, the box score belied Duke’s still-improving chemistry. The Blue Devils still had their struggles getting on the same page offensively outside of sets, as they have for the past two seasons, but they looked a lot more like a team who had played together before.
As the game went on, Duke’s off-ball movement, outlet passing, switching, trapping, help defense and overall timing looked more and more like a team deserving of its top-25 ranking in the Student Media Poll. Its rotations looked decisive: Lawson mostly paired Jordyn Oliver and Vanessa de Jesus’ minutes together and alternated them with Day-Wilson’s, freshman wing Ashlon Jackson was deployed in offensive lineups and Duke overall just did a better job of balancing the skill sets in its lineups than it has in the past.
The game’s first six minutes were pure chaos. Day-Wilson opened the scoring, recording the game’s first four points on a pair of midrange pull-ups. The Eagles responded with five consecutive points to take their first and only lead, but all the offense took a respite from there. At the first quarter media timeout, the teams were shooting a combined 23.1% and had made just one of their last 14 attempts. Day-Wilson, Lee Volker and Kennedy Brown were allowing a lot of dribble penetration to FGCU’s quicker guards, and with the Eagles’ five-out offense pulling Brown away from the rim, Duke had no backline help for them. The only thing that kept the Blue Devils ahead was FGCU’s trouble to finish at the rim—largely because its drivers were usually a few inches shorter than their defenders.
“I just think the environment here is really good,” said Lawson. “You have a really good crowd, really good support, and it’s good for our players to play in a road environment like that.”
The Blue Devils get the next week off for final exams before opening ACC play with a home game against Virginia Dec. 21.
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