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Duke women's basketball overcomes slow start again to down Syracuse at home

Sophomore guard Reigan Richardson in Duke's win against Syracuse.
Sophomore guard Reigan Richardson in Duke's win against Syracuse.

As the saying goes, three things are certain in life: death, taxes and Duke starting slow in an ACC game. However, the latter has been easy for the Blue Devils to recover from, especially with a group as tough as Kara Lawson’s squad.

No. 13 Duke overcame a 15-10 first-quarter deficit Sunday afternoon to beat Syracuse 62-50 at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Sophomore Shayeann Day-Wilson and senior Celeste Taylor combined for 31 points in the backcourt, and the Blue Devils’ relentless defensive pressure forced 19 Orange turnovers. 

Slow starts have been common for Duke, and Sunday’s matchup against Syracuse followed a similar pattern. In three of their last four games leading into Sunday, the Blue Devils trailed after the first quarter. Their record in those matchups? 3-1. 

“I thought we started the game poorly, maybe still not ourselves,” Lawson said. “I don't know if there were lingering effects [from Thursday night].”

In the first quarter against the Orange, the Blue Devils (17-2, 7-1 in the ACC) shot 5-of-14 from the field, threw away six turnovers and trailed by five on their home court. 

However, as it goes with this group, Duke fought back. In a second quarter headlined by Day-Wilson’s eight points and Taylor’s seven, the Blue Devils outscored Syracuse (13-7, 4-5) 19-9, bringing the halftime lead to 29-24.

“Back-to-back really good games from [Day-Wilson],” Lawson said. “She's seen substantial growth on the defensive end, running a team. And then we know she can shot-make.” 

While there were many reasons behind Duke’s second-quarter run, the Blue Devils turned the ball over just two times in the period. In addition, the defensive intensity ramped up, forcing six turnovers from the Orange.

“They did have 19 turnovers, so that's a good sign,” Lawson said. “But, you know, we had 18 of them, so I guess they disrupted us, too.”

Like the start of the first half, Duke found itself in another slump out of the locker room. While Duke won the quarter 13-12, the Orange, led by senior Dyaisha Fair, appeared to frustrate the Blue Devils. Lawson was animated on the sideline as five third-quarter turnovers plagued Duke’s offensive sets. 

It looked like Duke would need yet another response. As they have all year, the Blue Devils found that response on the defensive end. A 2:43 scoreless stretch came at an unfortunate time for Syracuse, and Fair struggled down the stretch. The star guard finished 4-of-18 from the field with 12 points.

“[Fair and Teisha Hyman] are hard to guard because they make tough shots,” Lawson said. “I think we had great attention to detail on our scout.” 

However, three uncharacteristically sloppy early fourth-quarter turnovers kept the Orange in it. With 2:39 to play, Syracuse was down just five points. 

Just like Duke’s first-quarter start, Taylor’s clutch performance down the stretch surely failed to surprise a loud Cameron Indoor crowd. Taylor went on a 6-0 run of her own with two fast-break layups and a jumper, and suddenly the Blue Devils’ lead rose to 12 points with under a minute to play. 

“Coach Lawson just kept on telling us to play with energy, but also she can't really play with energy for us,” Day-Wilson said. “So we just had to bring it for each other, stay together and execute.”

Perhaps the play of the game was in the midst of that 6-0 run, as sophomore guard Reigan Richardson stole the ball at halfcourt and found Taylor with a pretty pass over a Syracuse defender for a layup. After the play, Richardson gave out a screaming fist pump, and all of the wind was taken out of Syracuse’s sails.

“I think Reigan's just growing right before our eyes,” Lawson said. “She can guard multiple positions, [and] she plays hard in transition. I love where she is, and I think she can continue to be just a consistent performer for us.”

Just like that, Duke successfully fought back from behind again, this time against an up-and-coming Syracuse squad. It is to be determined if Duke’s perseverant strategy can continue to pay off late in the year, but it is working for the time being. For now, Lawson’s squad moves to 7-1 in the ACC, Duke’s best start to conference play since 2013-14, before a big home matchup at 8 p.m. Thursday against No. 12 Virginia Tech.

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