With less than five minutes left to play, it seemed as though the Blue Devils’ chances of an upset were getting slimmer with each passing second. No. 6 N.C. State was encroaching on Duke’s lead as a layup and free throw from sophomore Aziaha James pulled the Wolfpack within six. Defense has been the Blue Devils’ signature all year, yet when the Blue Devils needed an offensive hero to put N.C. State in its place, they looked to the player who has come up big all year long: senior guard Celeste Taylor.
Looking effortless in her play, the guard drained a silky 3-point jumper and notched four free throws to close out the game Thursday night and earn Duke a 72-58 victory over a Wolfpack squad that wiped the floor with the Blue Devils last regular season en route to an Elite Eight appearance in the NCAA tournament. As if that weren’t enough, she scored a season-best 23 points along the way.
“She was the player that could make plays for us,” said head coach Kara Lawson. “She carried us offensively.”
From the moment she hit her first points of the game off a corner three on the fast break, it was clear that Taylor was ready to have a banner night for Duke. Notching four more 3-pointers to go with her 7-of-14 shooting from the field, the Valley Stream, N.Y., native stepped up whenever the Blue Devils needed her. She knocked down shots in clutch moments and organized Duke’s stalwart defense to shut down a top N.C. State team.
“I thought Celeste had a complete performance tonight,” said Lawson. “We leaned on her in the second quarter, and then I thought her threes in the second half were kind of back breakers. She’s a complete player.”
Yet stepping into the limelight is nothing new for the senior, who transferred to Lawson’s squad before last season after starting her career at Texas. Taylor has made herself a home in the starting lineup, where her tenacious defensive play and sharp-shooting abilities make her a threat on both ends of the court in every single game. Through her animated style of play and elite communication style, the guard is capable of leading the Blue Devils back into the national conversation with passion and sheer determination.
To cement her status as a key member on the Duke team, she has dominated the box score. Taylor currently leads the team with 12.2 points and 1.2 3-pointers per game, making her the most prolific and successful shooter on a deep Blue Devil squad. Defensively, the talented guard is just as dominant, racking up 2.2 steals per game and 4.4 rebounds a game. Simply put, when Taylor is on the court, Duke is at its best.
“She organizes us offensively and defensively. And she communicates out there,” said Lawson. “We count on her to be one of our leaders and be someone that can impact the game.”
As if to prove Lawson’s sentiment, Taylor is making the most of her second year in the ACC as she continues to establish herself as a top player. After her performance against the Wolfpack, she is currently 22nd in points per game while also earning a spot as one of the top 10 players in the conference in steals. Behind her defensive play that keys the Blue Devils’ high press, Duke currently has the top defense in the ACC, allowing an average of 49.8 points per game.
However, the senior guard isn’t just considered good for the Blue Devils, or good in the ACC. Rather, she is a player with national acclaim. Named to the Ann Meyers-Drysdale Award Watch List for the second year in a row as one of the top shooting guards in the country, Taylor has also made her mark with three USA Basketball gold medals. As she continues to settle into Lawson’s system, she will undoubtedly make waves on the conference and national levels.
With the heart of a champion and a determination matched by few, Taylor is on track to have more performances reminiscent of her lights-out night at N.C. State. If her efforts against the Wolfpack were any indication, Duke has the potential to reach the ACC Championship or make a deep run into the NCAA tournament on the shoulders of the senior. Nonetheless, one thing is for certain: Taylor is a complete talent who has earned the respect of teammates and coaches alike.
“She’s a great all-around guard, and I am happy she’s here at Duke and I get a chance to coach her,” said Lawson.
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