The oft-quoted adage, ‘The best defense is a good offense,’ rings true in reverse for Duke. En route to a 14-1 start, the Blue Devils have boasted one of the top defenses in the nation, and they look at their best on offense when playing off the opportunities created by their defensive success.
Thursday’s matchup against Wake Forest was no different. However, coming off two huge conference wins against then-No. 6 N.C. State and Louisville, Duke turned what should have been an easier matchup against Wake Forest into a close one. While the 19th-ranked Blue Devils ultimately won 60-50, the final score was the first time all game that they led by double digits. Throughout the contest, Duke struggled in the halfcourt and often appeared stagnant on offense.
It was another dominant defensive performance by the Blue Devils, who forced 19 turnovers, but they scored relatively few points off these opportunities. Duke netted only 12 points off their opponents’ mistakes, significantly lower than its incoming season average of 23.4. This led the Blue Devils to take longer possessions, an area of the game in which they have been less successful.
“Wake Forest did a good job of being locked into our offense,” head coach Kara Lawson said after the game. “We didn't get a good rhythm, I think, ‘til towards the end, where we started moving the ball a little bit more. Once again, our defense was the star of the show to hold them to nine points in the fourth quarter, we were able to create that final separation, that was good.”
One reason for Duke’s lack of opportunities in transition was consistent trips to the free throw line for the Demon Deacons. Wake Forest went to the line for 11 shots in the first half, converting eight. These stoppages slowed the game down to a pace Wake Forest was content at playing at.
“We want to run; we want to look to push. I think the challenging thing tonight in the transition game was that we were fouling them and putting them to the free throw line,” Lawson said. “It's really hard to get transition opportunities when you're taking the ball out of the net off a free throw.”
Out of their comfort zone, the Blue Devils were unable to pull away against a Demon Deacon team coming off a one-point loss to Clemson. Unlike the 18-point first quarter the Blue Devils put up in their last game against Louisville, Duke got off to a significantly slower start Thursday night.
Most of the Blue Devils’ six first-quarter turnovers came off uncharacteristically errant passes, as their offense took a while to find its groove. They opened the game just 2-of-10 from the field, including multiple misses near the basket from Kennedy Brown and a corner three that hit the backboard from Celeste Taylor.
However, this miss did not sway Taylor, who reinvigorated the Blue Devils in the second quarter. Fueling a team run with 14 points in the quarter, including three triples and another deep score to end the half, Taylor finished the game with 18 points. She was also a force on defense, adding two blocks and three steals to her stat line. Her individual performance was a major factor in the final score.
“[Taylor’s] overall energy on both ends, really saved us in that first half, because we just didn't have a lot of it collectively. We needed somebody to kind of give us that jolt,” Lawson said. “Certainly, her shot-making did that.”
This second-quarter run was met with a third-quarter run by the Demon Deacons. Again, Duke was lethargic out of the gates with a slew of long, empty possessions. This allowed Wake Forest star Jewel Spear to temporarily take control of the game.
Duke missed assignments and miscommunicated on screens in an uncharacteristic lapse in defense. Without the Blue Devils’ defense there to create chances for the offense, Wake Forest was able to cut the Duke lead to three entering the fourth.
In the fourth, Duke seemed to kick into a higher gear. Its defense stepped up, and Reigan Richardson came in clutch with a three and an and-one in the closing minutes to seal the victory. In both the first and third quarters, Duke got off to slow starts, but as its defense settled in, the offense looked increasingly comfortable.
The individual talent on the team, while significant enough to make the difference in Thursday’s game, is not why Duke is 14-1. Rather, it is the team’s relentlessness on defense that drives them. Coming into Thursday, Duke had the second-best scoring defense in the nation, allowing just 50.3 points per game.
The players have bought into this mindset, and their success shows it. Traveling on the road to defeat an ACC opponent is never an easy task, and the Blue Devils have now twice proved capable of doing so. With its top players able to fill in during defensive lapses, Duke is poised to continue its success against Clemson Thursday after a week off.
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