For much of this season, Duke has been known as a defensive team. The Blue Devils are ranked third in the country for scoring defense, behind only Norfolk State, a squad that is yet to beat a Power Five team, and No. 1 South Carolina. Duke has been suffocating all year, using its above-average length and size to dominate in the paint and lock down the midrange game.
On a warm Thursday night at Cameron Indoor Stadium, the 11th-ranked Blue Devils proved that they could play with the best on both ends of the floor. Behind 21 points from guard Celeste Taylor and an additional 16 from forward Elizabeth Balogun, Duke came out with a 77-62 win against a strong N.C. State team.
As is often the case, the place to start in examining Thursday’s performance is with Taylor. She was as potent a scorer as ever, dropping the aforementioned 21 points on 8-for-16 shooting from the field and a 3-for-7 clip from behind the arc. On top of her attacking skill, the senior was excellent both on defense and at the glass. She had two steals and a block, along with several more disruptive deflections and tips. Taylor has been one of the best players in the ACC this season, largely because of her flexibility on both ends of the floor.
“[Taylor] is a non-traditional star on a non-traditional team,” said Duke head coach Kara Lawson after the game. “What I mean by that is people don't really know how to evaluate us because of how we play and they don't know how to evaluate her, relative to the other top players in the league, but she just wins. That's what she does.”
A big part of what were the most points Duke has scored since a Dec. 4 win against Richmond was complete domination on the boards. The Blue Devils outrebounded the Wolfpack 43-24, including a whopping 16-4 margin on the offensive glass, and scored 17 second-chance points. Even though shots were not always falling for the Blue Devils, they often got to take another crack at a bucket.
“[Duke has] size on the block and then they’ve got great length,” said Wolfpack head coach Wes Moore after the game. “[When] you add Celeste Taylor to that. I mean, that's why it's hard to keep them off [the glass].”
Another major reason that Duke’s offense worked so well Thursday was its ability to convert in transition and otherwise at speed. The Blue Devils were rarely stagnant, constantly moving the ball and changing up their offensive looks. Not infrequently, a cleverly designed inbound play or an intelligent pass would set up a Duke player for an easy bucket in the low post or from behind the arc. Lawson even took out both of her true centers (Kennedy Brown and Mia Heide) at some points, something that she had previously seemed reluctant to do but that has become more common as of late.
Duke distributed the ball well, combining for 17 assists on the night. Unsurprisingly, that effort was led by Taylor, who had five. All year, the Blue Devils have played better when they act as a cohesive unit, and while big names like Taylor have been instrumental in the team’s success, the deep bench that Lawson runs has been just as important.
“When we play with great pace, I think we're much better offensively than when we just stand and hold. And so we just reiterated to our players, ‘play with great pace, get off the ball’,” said Lawson, “I thought we had some nice possessions where we moved the ball well and when you do that against any defense, it lends itself to getting more open looks.”
For a long time, the mantra in basketball has been “defense wins championships.” While that is absolutely true, the Blue Devils will need to get it done on both ends of the floor to make a run deep into a postseason loaded with talented teams. South Carolina is the near-consensus No.1 team in the country and has been for most of the season. Not only do the Gamecocks have a top-three scoring defense, but also a top-10 offense. South Carolina comes in at No. 7 in the country in points per game. The Blue Devils? No. 178.
On Thursday, fans got a glimpse of what Duke can do on offense. To be a postseason contender, the Blue Devils will need to replicate that kind of performance, night in and night out. If they can continue to run the floor and share the rock like they did against the Wolfpack, that sort of consistency is well within the realm of possibility.
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