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'Throw it right back': Duke women's basketball's slow start outweighs late rally in loss at North Carolina

Junior center Kennedy Brown reaches for the block during Duke's narrow loss at North Carolina.
Junior center Kennedy Brown reaches for the block during Duke's narrow loss at North Carolina.

CHAPEL HILL—Many in the sports world have heard the saying, “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.” While this idea definitely has merit, starting the game off on the right foot can set an important tone for the rest of the game, and slow starts have been a theme as of late for No. 13 Duke.

Prior to Thursday’s game at Carmichael Arena, head coach Kara Lawson emphasized the importance of getting off to a good start offensively and taking care of the ball. For Duke, that is not what happened against its rival. The Blue Devils were scoreless in the first seven minutes of the contest and committed eight first-quarter turnovers in the 61-56 loss. This put pressure on their defense and set them behind early. 

Turnovers were a problem for the Blue Devils, and when Duke made runs to cut the Tar Heel lead, those runs were hindered by carelessness offensively. With 4:44 remaining in the third quarter, the game was tied at 31-31, and it appeared as though the Blue Devils had found their offensive footing. However, three turnovers in the final two minutes of the quarter contributed to a 9-0 run by the Tar Heels, who never looked back.

“Decision-making was poor at times,” said Lawson. “And I thought it really stymied a couple opportunities to capture momentum because we would get a stop and then throw it right back to them.”

It is not easy to play on the road in the ACC, and anybody can beat anybody in this extremely deep league. What Lawson has done to turn around this Blue Devil team is remarkable, and one loss against a quality team should take nothing away from what is still one of the top teams in not only the ACC, but the country.

Nevertheless, it is clear that the Blue Devils’ defense is something special and has the potential to take them very far. In order for Duke to realize its full potential, it will have to minimize self-inflicted wounds, particularly on the offensive end.

Frankly, a lack of consistent offense has been bailed out in recent games by a combination of stellar defense and senior guard Celeste Taylor’s heroics. In the Blue Devils’ two prior wins against Georgia Tech and Clemson, the offense started off slowly and both games were tight at halftime. Similarly, even though the Blue Devils only scored five points in the first quarter against North Carolina, they stayed within striking distance because of their suffocating defense. 

“I thought our defense held us in it; we weren't scoring well, but we only gave up 12 points in [the first] quarter,”  said Lawson. “Then in the second quarter, we gave up nine, and the score was tied at the half. I thought we were in pretty good shape to be tied after a start like that.”

This is likely not a sustainable method to maintain success for the Blue Devils, but they found ways to win from stellar second-half play in the two previous games. Unfortunately for them, this magic wore off Thursday as the Tar Heels’ phenomenal backcourt willed the home team to victory.

Typically, Duke’s full-court press and aggressive defense have led to transition opportunities and fast-break points. However, the Blue Devils had zero fast-break points Thursday, forcing their half-court offense to generate the scoring. This led to turnovers and missed shots, and the Blue Devils set themselves behind for the rest of the contest.

On the bright side, the Blue Devils have shown that they always play with tremendous effort; there is no doubt that the competitive fire and desire to win are there. For example, North Carolina was up 46-35 with 6:51 remaining. The game looked to be all but decided before sophomore guards Shayeann Day-Wilson and Reigan Richardson came alive in the fourth. They scored the majority of Duke’s points in that quarter and both had key offensive rebounds down the stretch as the Blue Devils pulled within three. 

“They fight. They wanted to win, and it's hard to win on the road in this league,” said Lawson. “We've said it all year: It's a really challenging year for our league.” 

Day-Wilson was outstanding throughout the game as she provided constant scoring with a season-high 24 points. This was crucial in a game in which Taylor, Duke’s leading scorer, never got comfortable due to foul trouble and an off-shooting night. 

“[Day-Wilson] did have a good offensive night … and hopefully that gives her more confidence, because she is a big scoring threat when she's aggressive,” said Lawson. 

There is no question that the Blue Devils will put in their best effort day in and day out. However, the offensive execution, not the effort, has been inconsistent. There is still no reason to panic, as Lawson has demonstrated her ability to make adjustments well. To put things in perspective, this team is one win shy from matching both its overall and conference win totals from a season ago, and that should not be taken for granted.

Duke will get a chance to prove this Sunday when it takes on Syracuse at 12 p.m. in Cameron Indoor Stadium. 

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