TAYLOR'S VERSION: Taylor, Balogun lead Duke women's basketball to upset win at No. 6 N.C. State

Celeste Taylor (23 points, 5-6 3PT) rises up for the triple in the second half of Duke's upset win at N.C. State.
Celeste Taylor (23 points, 5-6 3PT) rises up for the triple in the second half of Duke's upset win at N.C. State.

In any sport, there is no game like a rivalry game to ignite fierce and sudden competition. When neighboring teams play one another, rankings fly out the window and all bets are off, except for one: The game is going to be worth watching.

Thursday night was no exception, as the Blue Devils ventured into hostile territory to face off against N.C. State in Reynolds Coliseum. In true rivalry-game style, Duke’s exclusion from the AP Poll meant nothing, even against the sixth-ranked Wolfpack on the road. The Blue Devils combined stalwart defense with killer jumpers to knock down N.C. State 72-58 in the second conference game of each team’s season.

“We just stayed stay focused and stayed locked in and didn't allow the emotions of the game to overtake our execution,” head coach Kara Lawson said after the game.

A tipoff won by 6-foot-6 junior center Kennedy Brown marked a slow beginning to a game that would quickly turn into an unforgettable competition. It was a matchup that drew out the best of the Blue Devils (12-1, 2-0 in the ACC), challenging them with one of the best teams in the ACC. Most impressive among Duke’s efforts was the play of Celeste Taylor, who racked up a season-high 23 points to secure an unexpected road victory for the Blue Devils.

“Offensively, she was special tonight,” said Lawson of Taylor. “We leaned on her in the second quarter, and then I thought her threes in the second half were back-breakers. She shot it well.”

But Taylor, and the game, did not immediately take off. Eight minutes passed without consequence, each team repeatedly missing the mark with their shots. Until a nice jumper from Brown with four minutes left before the first break, all Duke had to its name was an early 3-pointer from senior forward Elizabeth Balogun and a handful of missed shots from the paint. Brown’s points, however, put an end to this warmup period: Her shot ignited the game, with the Blue Devils and Wolfpack (11-2, 1-1) alike heating up after that. 

“Kennedy's always a key player for us,” said Lawson. “... She's just a really good player. And we know that we need to get production on the interior, and she did a good job.”

With just four seconds left on the first quarter's clock, it seemed as though the buzzer would sound with the game tied at 10-10. Then came a half-court lob out of nowhere from N.C. State senior guard Jakia Brown-Turner, securing a three-point lead off a buzzer-beater for the Wolfpack heading into the second quarter.

Suddenly, a slow and even game turned into a fast-paced race with Duke eager to break an eight-point deficit. It did, just moments later, with Taylor’s second successful downtown shot of the night. The action revved up with back-and-forth plays, shots falling through alternating hoops in turn. Sophomore guard Shayeann Day-Wilson earned her first points with a three; a minute later, the reigning ACC Freshman of the Year was back in the limelight, lining up at the charity stripe to double her point total with three consecutive foul shots that gave Duke, all of a sudden, the lead at 24-23.

“We were a little skittish in that first quarter, missing some shots that we normally make,” said Lawson. “And I thought once we settled into the game in the second quarter, we started to feel the rhythm of it and started to finish our offensive looks.”

The half was signed and sealed by a joint effort between Taylor and Brown, with the former taking the ball down the court and passing it to Brown beneath the net, who converted that bounce-pass into a layup. Another buzzer-beater to end another quarter—but this time, it belonged to the Blue Devils.

“Having a player like Kennedy is unique for me, in my time at Duke … a go-to player down on the block that we can throw it to. She can score and she can play-make. So she's a pivotal part of what we do. You really need anchors down low that can get you buckets when you need them,” said Lawson.

The second half of the game commenced with a 35-23 lead for the Blue Devils. They never lost that lead: Whenever a threat of Wolfpack recovery crept in, Lawson’s deep roster was ready to fight back. The Blue Devil triumvirate of the night—Balogun, Day-Wilson and Taylor—was joined by fierce sophomore guard Reigan Richardson in keeping field goals flying through the net.

Still, the game was by no means over. Four minutes into the fourth quarter, N.C. State had managed to slim its deficit to eight points; it earned a few moments respite, too, when the shot clock and scoreboard in Reynolds Coliseum froze and demanded a break in the game flow that had so heavily favored Duke. When play resumed, it featured a more collected Wolfpack and a blow to Balogun, who was taken down by a hit to the stomach that put her on the bench for the remainder of the game. As a comfort to the Blue Devils, at least, came yet another three-pointer from Taylor—her fifth of the game, putting Duke up 59-50 with 5:10 to play.

“Celeste is everything for us. She's a great leader. She organizes us on offense and defense, she knows how to play every position on the floor, offensively and defensively. And she just communicates out there,” said Lawson. 

“I sure am happy she’s here at Duke and I get a chance to coach her,” she added.

With just more than three minutes left, Duke led by five, its formerly comfortable lead challenged by N.C. State sophomore guard Saniya Rivers. Luckily for the Blue Devils, Brown’s tall figure was locked in under the basket, grabbing boards all over the place while also putting up a couple of layups of her own. With less than a minute left in the competition, the junior from Derby, Kan., had helped her team to a 10-point lead that would only grow in the last moments of play.

An unranked Duke side challenging the No. 6 team in the nation on its home court was always going to be a test of strength for the Blue Devils. Luckily for Lawson, her players passed with flying colors.

The Blue Devils next gear up for ACC combat Sunday, when they will host Louisville in Cameron Indoor Stadium at 12 p.m.


Sophie Levenson profile
Sophie Levenson | Sports features editor

Sophie Levenson is a Trinity sophomore and sports features editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.

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