'A great week for us': Duke women's basketball's shifting role in ACC apparent in win against Louisville

Kara Lawson looks on during Duke's Dec. 29 win at N.C. State.
Kara Lawson looks on during Duke's Dec. 29 win at N.C. State.

The sports fan lives for the miracle storyline. Unfortunately for the sports fan, sometimes the greatest stories are those never told.

Look, for instance, at Louisville, which stopped by Cameron Indoor Stadium Sunday afternoon. The Cardinals fell in a Final Four matchup against South Carolina last season, and an 11-5 record this season shows that its national dominance now wavers.

Most teams are not meant to have the ultimate comeback, the tale told for years of resilience and building a tower from the ruins of their last loss. For the Goliaths, sometimes we meet our Davids; for the Davids, sometimes the Goliaths just win as they’re supposed to. Odds, which we believe are just talking points made to be overcome, remain just odds, which weren’t in our favor for a reason.

A team in Durham learned that lesson last year. Duke, after cutting off its 2020-21 stretch after only four games, was supposed to truly launch the Kara Lawson era the following season. Through the nonconference stretch, that possibility seemed likely. Cue defeats to bottom-of-the-conference Virginia, plus nail-biter wins against Pittsburgh and Clemson, though, and there was seemingly no story to tell. Duke ended its season voluntarily for the second year in a row when it rejected a WNIT bid.

For Duke, Austin Meek of The Athletic said it best when reflecting on Michigan football’s Saturday night loss to TCU: “Life isn’t a Disney movie. Or sometimes it is, and you realize too late that the movie isn’t about you.”

But in its 63-56 defeat of Louisville, Duke avoided the fables of failed resilience Sunday. In beating the Cardinals as well as No. 6 N.C. State days prior, the Blue Devils proved that this movie could finally be about them.

“This is a great week for us: to go to N.C. State and win, and now to beat the team that I think was picked to win the league in Louisville,” Lawson said after the game. “That’s a good start for us in ACC play, to go 3-0.”

The victory Sunday was itself punctuated by several storybook endings as the game progressed. Freshman guard Ashlon Jackson punctuated the end of the first quarter with a corner three. Senior guard Celeste Taylor notched a steal with two seconds left on the Louisville shot clock on an inbound pass and finished with an open layup; soon after, sophomore guard Shayeann Day-Wilson beat the shot clock by the skin of her teeth with an off-the-glass three from deep, contributing to an 8-0 Duke run that kept it in the game despite the shooting prowess of Louisville junior guard Hailey Van Lith.

And as in a fairytale, several Blue Devils found individual triumphs. Day-Wilson did not find herself in the starting five at the introduction of the season and found herself in a scoring rut midway through Duke’s nonconference slate, going scoreless against Austin Peay, but her 10 points against the Cardinals put her right behind Balogun in Duke’s leading scorers Sunday afternoon. After going scoreless against Virginia in December, Balogun added 16 points against the Wolfpack, plus 20 points and 10 rebounds—both season-highs—against Louisville Sunday.

“She is … one of our best players in chaos,” Lawson said of Balogun. “ … If you can become a good offensive team, it’s what you do after the defense messes up the play. And that’s sometimes the chaotic part of the play; it doesn’t go according to script. How do you figure that out? She just has a way of doing that where she just gets the pass and shoots the three. She’s a mismatch for us. This was definitely one of her best games.”

Junior guard Jordyn Oliver and Jackson also received praise from Lawson after stepping in for Reigan Richardson early in the first quarter. Richardson was escorted off the court after landing on an opposing player’s foot. 

The two symbolize how Duke’s bench has become a critical part of its success and supports an all-around victory rather than simply backing up its key players; though relying too closely on its stars doomed Duke previously, that loss to then-No. 3 UConn hangs less heavily in the loss column today.

“[Oliver] in the first half was critical. That can be disruptive, when one of your starters goes down in the first couple minutes, and she went right in and helped change the game for us,” Lawson said. “... And for [Jackson] to be in the heat of it in the last minute and a close game I think is good; we’re going to need her to play well.”

The victory also symbolizes Duke’s shifting role in the ACC, bringing into the light a seasoned competitor instead of just the one-off heartbreaker. Its rout of N.C. State interrupted 18 Wolfpack victories at home against conference opponents; Sunday’s win was Duke’s first defeat over Louisville since January 2017 and breaks the five-game Cardinal win streak in the series. And if two of the top teams in the ACC aren’t enough to stop Duke when it is not even at the height of its potential, then who is?

After being projected to win the conference and starting at No. 7 in the AP Poll, Sunday’s result was not Louisville’s ideal visit to Cameron, especially when on a mission to avenge a Final Four loss. Van Lith and junior forward Olivia Cochran, who were vital in keeping Louisville in the game with late threes—the former had 23 points on the day—would find that even the top moments of your career can be futile. 

Duke, however, will march on. But the confetti will have to wait.

“Handling success is a challenging thing to do,” Lawson said after the game. “Everyone wants to tell you how good you are … and how good you’re going to be. And everyone wants to praise you. And that’s dangerous when you’re on a team. … We have to keep growing. We can’t just show up on Thursday and expect to win because we won our first three games.”

Leah Boyd profile
Leah Boyd

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.


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