It had been almost four years since Clemson stepped foot into Cameron Indoor Stadium. Only one member of the Tigers’ roster—Brie Perpignan, a transfer from Elon—had ever played on Coach K Court.
Clemson did not get the welcome it was looking for Thursday night, as No. 16 Duke bested the Tigers 66-56 in what, for the first three quarters, was a close battle, but ultimately marked the 10th-straight win for the Blue Devils. Both teams came in off recent underdog wins against dominant conference teams—Duke against then-No. 6 N.C. State and Louisville, the Tigers against then-No. 7 Virginia Tech—and were perhaps looking to continue making a name for themselves as two rising programs in the ACC.
It could have been a dominant opening for Duke (15-1, 5-0 in the ACC), but despite a corner three from senior Celeste Taylor within the first few seconds and a disruptive full-court press stopping Clemson’s offense, the Blue Devils’ early lead remained precarious as shots quickly stopped falling. Duke shot 3-for-11 from the field after the first few minutes, and the two teams went back and forth under the basket for the remainder of the quarter. For a moment, it seemed as though Duke’s Cinderella season would be interrupted against unranked Clemson (11-7, 2-4).
“I thought we were noncompetitive in the first half, and that was very frustrating to see,” head coach Kara Lawson said after the game. “... Clemson kept us off balance, obviously with their zone and trapping; and we didn't have a rhythm offensively most of the night.”
There were bursts of momentum as the first half moved along. Two buzzer-beating threes from junior Vanessa de Jesus wrapped up the first quarter for Duke, and five blocks from Kennedy Brown created offensive tension for Clemson. But no matter how many highlight-reel plays Duke made, it could not extend its five-point lead, trapped in a tight game that, two weeks ago against N.C. State, would have undoubtedly gone its way. Eventually, 3-for-11 morphed into 11-for-31—a 35.5% clip—and Duke jogged into the locker room at the break up by the same three points that saved it in its 64-61 victory against the Tigers in February 2022.
The key for Clemson, it seemed, was in the paint, with 18 of its 26 first-half points coming from under the basket. Lawson toyed with a four-guard lineup for most of the game, leaving only Brown or graduate forward Mia Heide to handle forward Amari Robinson or center Hannah Hank at any given time. Clemson’s size advantage not only fueled its own offense but kept it ahead of Duke in the rebounding column for most of the game, forcing the Blue Devils to chase down the Tigers on defense as the visitors mirrored Duke’s playbook by running for fast-break points.
“Our defense was poor, and we need to be better on that end,” Lawson said. “We’ve just got to do a lot of work on that end. We had some breakdowns, and thankfully, [Brown and Heide] were back there to save layups after guard after guard was getting beat off the dribble.”
Duke survived from behind the arc, opening the second half with three triples. Brown, Duke’s typical key to running the offense, remained scoreless until the fourth quarter, while wing Elizabeth Balogun, who has topped the scoring in Duke’s recent appearances, had only two points to her name until late in the third quarter.
Clemson, trailing by six in the third quarter, eventually began to match the same disruption on defense that Lawson has long emphasized for the Blue Devils. They hindered passing lanes for Duke, leaving Heide and Brown stranded in the paint and several times almost securing breakaway turnovers at the top of the key, particularly as Perpignan was relentless against de Jesus.
Duke, though, saw its defense begin to trend in the opposite direction. Momentum was lost as Brown’s third foul sent her to the bench for most of the third quarter and Clemson’s size dominance—again fueled by the four-guard lineup—allowed them to notch 13 second-chance points under the basket.
The Tigers’ halfcourt press stunted any hope of a scoring run for Duke in the third quarter, but while guard Ashlon Jackson was the target of most of Clemson’s two-man trap, Balogun waited on the other end of the key. Two quick threes lit up Duke’s offense, and it eventually reached 50% from behind the arc that quarter. It took until the fourth quarter for the game to finally seem like it was Duke’s to win, and Balogun’s quick six points combined with Taylor’s 19 ultimately gave Duke the 12-point lead it had chased the whole game as the fourth quarter winded down.
“I don’t think we normally shoot this many threes per game,” Lawson said. “But clearly, that was part of their strategy; they were in the zone, and they were giving some people some open shots, and I thought we made enough of them to win.”
Sophomore Reigan Richardson and Taylor led the recovery of Duke’s defense in the final minutes, the former logging three steals in the final 10 minutes of play and fueling the transition offense the Blue Devils needed the whole game.
“[Richardson] has a great instinct on defense. She’s got a good frame; she’s a big guard, and she’s really athletic,” Lawson said. “She can anticipate timing, and I think she came up with some good steals.”
Duke’s last three meetings with the Tigers have been decided by four points or less—and though the 10-point win was not the dominance it needed to completely rewrite the record, it was enough to make Clemson’s return to Cameron Indoor a frustrating one, which it will now have to look to avenge. Duke, meanwhile, will look to defeat Georgia Tech Sunday in Atlanta at 4 p.m.
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Leah Boyd is a Pratt senior and a social chair of The Chronicle's 118th volume. She was previously editor-in-chief for Volume 117.