Women’s college basketball games are played over the course of four quarters. On a chilly Thursday evening in Durham, Duke seemed to forget about the latter pair of frames. After jumping out to a 20-point lead at halftime and at one point extending that margin to 29, the Blue Devils imploded, blowing much of their lead to take the victory 66-50 against a relatively weak Northwestern squad.
“It was terrible. [Tonight’s game] might be our worst defense of the season,” said Duke head coach Kara Lawson after the game. “[I’m] so frustrated that we weren't able to put together a four-quarter game today.”
The game started well for the Blue Devils. After a slow first five minutes, sophomore guard Lee Volker dropped eight straight points, lighting a fire under her teammates. Duke’s suffocating full-court press also had a strong impact on a struggling Wildcats team. At the half, Northwestern had put just 12 points on the board, six in each quarter. The Blue Devils also held a solid lead in turnover margin, giving up the ball just two times compared to the Wildcats’ seven.
Duke’s second-half performance, especially the fourth quarter, was ugly. The Blue Devils gave up turnover after turnover, struggling to keep the ball on the offensive end of the floor and committing sloppy, avoidable fouls.
“It felt like to me we were just throwing it to them. I mean, outlets were just throwing it to them,” said Lawson.
There were bright spots during the game. Duke’s defense was strong through three quarters before it allowed 23 points in the fourth, and even with Northwestern bringing a press at times, Duke was able to spring players and put up easy buckets with relative consistency.
The Blue Devils also shared the ball relatively well and racked up a total of 21 assists, seven of which came from redshirt junior guard Jordyn Oliver. Lawson continues to sing her praises of the team’s unselfish approach to offense.
“We really believe in the corporate attack and everybody sharing it and making plays,” said Lawson. “There are certainly games where one player has it going or another one has it going but we feel like this makes us more difficult to defend.”
The freshman class also made itself known Thursday, with 6-foot-3 Shay Bollin coming in late for centers Mia Heide and Kennedy Brown, both of whom ran into foul trouble. Guard Ashlon Jackson had a career-best 10-point outing, including two 3-pointers on four attempts from behind the arc. Lawson has faith in her young talent, which will be key for a team that prides itself on its depth.
The Blue Devils were somewhat lucky Thursday. Northwestern is not an especially strong team, and even with a late rally, the Blue Devils had built up enough of a lead that the fourth-quarter comeback was of little consequence. They will not have this kind of leeway against stronger ACC opponents. Teams coming up in the meat of the schedule like Louisville, N.C. State and Virginia Tech will not let performances like this slide. If the Blue Devils let off the gas for even a minute or two, they will be cooked by some of the top talent that Division I has to offer.
At the end of the day, this game is not something that Lawson and her players should feel the need to panic over. It was still a relatively strong win over a Big Ten school, and while the collapse in the fourth quarter was unfortunate for the Blue Devils, it did not kill them. They still won by a margin of 16 points. Key players, both new and returning, had solid outings and Duke’s size and depth are making themselves more present every single game. Lawson’s press scheme has thrown metaphorical wrenches into the offensive game plans of more than one team.
More than anything else, a performance like this should serve as a wake-up call. Duke played well for much of the game, but to really succeed, it will need to play well for all four quarters, lest it risks blowing a late-game lead like this without the security that a 29-point cushion provides. The Blue Devils would be wise to remember that other, tougher teams will be less forgiving than the Wildcats were Thursday evening.
The Blue Devils next face Richmond on the road Sunday at 2 p.m.
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