N.C. State has been the measuring stick in ACC women’s basketball for much of recent memory, winning the last three conference tournaments. With the way Duke has played this year, it is only fitting that this game represented a changing of the guard.
The 11th-ranked Blue Devils defeated the Wolfpack 77-62 Thursday evening inside Cameron Indoor Stadium, posting their highest scoring total since a Dec. 4 victory against Richmond. The seniors were the key players in the contest, as guard Celeste Taylor scored 21 and wing Elizabeth Balogun chipped in with 16 points and 12 rebounds. With one game remaining against North Carolina, Duke is one win away from clinching a share of the ACC regular-season title for the first time since 2013.
“I thought that was one of our more complete games of the season,” said head coach Kara Lawson. “They came through and played one of their best games of the year, so I'm encouraged by that.”
With 2:05 remaining in the first half, the Blue Devils and Wolfpack were locked at 26-26. On the following possession, N.C. State sophomore guard Saniya Rivers passed the ball in transition to graduate forward Mimi Collins for what looked to be an easy layup. However, Taylor flew back and swatted the attempt, bringing life into the stadium after a Wolfpack run had quieted the energy among the Duke faithful.
Taylor’s defensive effort was remarkable throughout the contest, but it was especially notable in the last two minutes of the first half. Giving up six inches in height, she forced a miss on graduate center River Baldwin’s layup attempt and snagged the defensive rebound while being fouled. In the closing seconds of the half, she made a significant deflection as the crowd applauded her tenacious effort.
“When you see your teammate doubling down and getting those steals and sprinting the floor, it obviously just makes you want to work harder,” said Taylor.
The deafening student section hexed Jakia Brown-Turner on the inbound of the half’s final possession and Duke (24-4, 14-3 in the ACC) forced a tough 3-point attempt by Collins. With the Cameron Crazies on their feet and Lawson applauding, the Blue Devils snatched back the momentum from the Wolfpack (18-10, 8-9) heading into halftime, leading 33-30 and never looking back.
“I didn't think we played well in the first half and so to go up three at half, I was like hopefully we can play better in the second half,” said Lawson.
To open the second half, sophomore guard Reigan Richardson made a tough fadeaway jump shot, setting the tone for the remainder of the game as Duke opened on a 14-6 run. The Blue Devils looked extremely potent on that end of the floor, connecting on shots while working within the flow of the offense to create opportunities for teammates.
“We love playing with each other and I hope that everybody can see that,” said Taylor. “So the ball just moves and it just flows naturally.”
Even when those shots were not falling, Duke got second and even third chances due to its elite offensive rebounding. The Blue Devils outrebounded the Wolfpack 43-24 and claimed 16 offensive boards.
“The rebound battle is really important … you can't always know that you're going to shoot it well and so to be able to get those extra opportunities is huge,” said Lawson. “When we play our defense and when we get set, if we can limit teams to one shot we feel like we're hard to score on.”
Richardson struck first once more in the final period, converting a tough and-one finish on a fast break. Duke then forced a turnover and Balogun converted on a layup to open the quarter on a 5-0 run, pushing the Blue Devil lead to 59-44 and forcing Wolfpack head coach Wes Moore to call timeout with 8:34 remaining in the contest.
While it looked like the Blue Devils would run away with the game — they led by 17 points — the Wolfpack showed their determination to fight back. Back-to-back triples by Brown-Turner and Rivers cut the Duke lead to 65-56.
Nevertheless, the Blue Devils made the plays when it mattered most, and fittingly, Taylor hit the dagger, a corner triple with 2:58 left to push Duke’s lead to 12.
“Celeste just wins … she makes winning plays,” said Lawson. “She's one of the best players in this league, one of the best players in the country and hopefully as the season goes on, people recognize the level that she's playing at, because it's really high.”
It was a back-and-forth affair to start the game, and a free throw by Richardson with 8:53 remaining in the second quarter tied the contest at 15. From there, Duke went on a 9-4 run to gain the first real separation of the game.
The Blue Devil defense was elite during this period, forcing three turnovers on N.C. State’s first three possessions of the quarter, including another shot clock violation. Sophomore guard Shayeann Day-Wilson and Balogun both knocked down key triples to ignite the offense. Balogun was the only Blue Devil in double figures in the first half, filling up the stat sheet with seven rebounds as well.
“I thought [Balogun] was active … she finished with 12 [rebounds] and was a difference maker for us there,” said Lawson. “She's one of our most efficient offensive players and someone that's been in these types of games before, so she's confident.”
Right from the jump, Duke was locked in defensively. On the first possession of the game, the Blue Devils forced a shot clock violation and Richardson blocked a Madison Hayes 3-pointer.
However, the Wolfpack were able to get their offense rolling, particularly by pushing the ball in transition and not allowing Duke to set up its stifling half-court defense. Second-leading Wolfpack scorer Jada Boyd was effective in the opening period. The senior forward scored seven of the team's opening 15 points, and finished with 19 points to lead her team.
Nevertheless, the majority of the game featured a stifling Blue Devil defense, which allowed only nine assists while forcing 14 turnovers.
Next up for Duke is Sunday’s regular-season finale at home against North Carolina. With a win, the Blue Devils can close out their home slate undefeated.
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Ranjan Jindal is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.