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Take of the week: Duke women's basketball's historic defensive discipline is orchestrating a remarkable season

Sophomore guard Shayeann Day-Wilson brings the ball up the court in Duke's 2022 win against Davidson.
Sophomore guard Shayeann Day-Wilson brings the ball up the court in Duke's 2022 win against Davidson.

It is no secret that Duke is on a tear right now. The Blue Devils have not lost since late November when they played then-No. 3 UConn in the Phil Knight Legacy tournament in Portland, Ore., and since that point the squad from Durham has won 11 straight games. While some stellar offensive performances from big names like sophomore Shayeann Day-Wilson and senior Celeste Taylor have received heaps of praise, an aspect of this team’s game that has perhaps gone unnoticed for much of the season has been its defense.

The Blue Devils have been caught in several tight games as of late, notably against Clemson and Georgia Tech, and while some crucial buckets and 3-point shooting were important in pulling out those wins, the defense there was also near-perfect. Against the Yellow Jackets, Duke did not allow a basket in the final 4:50 of the game, nearly half of the fourth quarter. That defense allowed the Blue Devils to stretch a fragile nine-point lead into an 18-point blowout by the time the final whistle blew. 

Other coaches have taken note, too. After the win in Atlanta, Georgia Tech head coach Nell Fortner said, “I don't know where [the Blue Devils] are situated in the national rankings for defense, but that's a really good defensive team. I thought after halftime they really turned it up a notch, and just really played at a different level.” 

It is important to look beyond the anecdotal evidence from a few games. Taking a broader look at the season statistics, this team’s defense is clearly something special. Duke ranks third in the nation in scoring defense, allowing just 50.4 points per game. The top two slots? Norfolk State, a squad yet to beat a ranked team and that has played a relatively weak schedule, and No. 1 South Carolina, the reigning national champion.

Even compared to Duke’s defense in years past, this is a special team. According to Her Hoop Stats, the Blue Devils allow just 72.6 points per 100 opponent possessions. That is the lowest number on record by Duke since at least the 2009-10 season, the first year that the website began recording data. The team has also allowed the fewest points per game within that same timespan. 

While the defense has been by all measures spectacular, the offense has been slightly less exciting. On that end of the floor, the Durham outfit has been good but not great. It ranks in the middle of the pack compared to past seasons by offensive rating and average points per game. To be a truly remarkable team, Duke will need to work to put more points on the board. It is important to keep in mind that the only ranked squad that allows fewer points per game is the Gamecocks, a team that the Blue Devils could very well meet in the postseason. 

It is still far too early to make any bold predictions about this season’s outcome. The Blue Devils certainly look very good right now, but all it takes is one bad loss for that momentum to dissipate. The win against N.C. State was a significant one, marking a solid victory against a very good Wolfpack squad, but where Duke will go from here remains to be seen. It will need to keep up that suffocating defense against some very good teams in the coming weeks, with big games against No. 17 North Carolina, No. 12 Virginia Tech and No. 7 Notre Dame on the horizon. 

There will be more tests than the aforementioned game in Raleigh, and they will likely prove themselves equally or more challenging. Duke’s defense is promising and remarkable even beyond just this season, but if the Blue Devils want to make any sort of deep postseason run, head coach Kara Lawson will need to get even more out of her players, especially on the offensive end. 

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